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How Not To Reform Immigration

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Just like everyone else, I’m all excited about the idea of immigration reform. I certainly don’t want a bunch of people wandering back and forth over our borders with no accountability and no restrictions. They could be anyone and they could be up to anything from picking tomatoes to poisoning our water supplies. I’ve even heard they’re going to infect us all with brain worms!

It’s a good thing that Congress and President Bush have a comprehensive plan for dealing with the flood of illegal immigrants crossing the borders and the millions who are here already. They’re looking out for our best interests and after striking some deals and making a few compromises they’re working together to make us all safe and protect the economy and keep the brain worms where they belong. They’ve got a great big immigration reform bill which is just the ticket.

The only problem is that the bill is absolute crap from start to finish. Instead of a comprehensive, thoroughly developed and sensible plan for dealing with all aspects of the immigration issue, what they’re considering passing is a horrible mish-mash of crackpot ideas, half-measures and pandering which will do nothing effective to control immigration or adequately resolve the status of illegal immigrants already in this country and creates a bureaucratic nightmare and a real threat to every citizens civil rights. Every good idea in the bill has been negated by some sort of compromise or half-assed implementation, and there are more flashy yet poorly conceived and unworkable measures than you can shake a tamale at.

Immigration can be controlled by controlling the borders, monitoring the population and the businesses which use immigrants, or by allowing immigrants into the country in a rational an managed way. The problem with the new immigration law currently under consideration is that it combines elements of all three of these policies and doesn’t implement any of them completely enough to actually be effective. In the process it also brings along far too many of the negatives associated with all three plans.

The core of the law is basically an internal enforcement system, with biometric IDs and harsh penalties and lots of paperwork for employers. The first problem is that the way internal security works is by tracking not just immigrants, but everyone so that you can tell who the immigrants are and who they aren’t, not to mention what they’re doing and who they’re doing it with. That means high-tech IDs that can be remotely scanned and a national database run by the Department of Homeland Security to keep track of everyone. Not surprisingly, that means this element of the bill isn’t terribly popular with those who believe in privacy rights. Even the most radical nativists don’t like the idea of stopping immigration by turning the US into a police state and tracking everyone electronically in a giant database controlled by the Department of Homeland Security, and it seems basically unfair to punish citizens with loss of rights and privacy in order to get at the illegals.

What’s more, the concept of a national ID system has already failed before it’s been tried. With Maine leading the way a number of states have made it very clear that they will not comply with a federally imposed ID system, so unless the government resorts to pretty harsh methods of coercion against state governments, the IDs essential to making such a system work are already DOA and without those IDs an internal enforcement system will not work. When it comes right down to it, what matters more to you, keeping the government from being able to track your every move through a comprehensive computer database, or making sure the person serving your burger is an ex-convict or a 14-year-old instead of an immigrant?

Just as the new bill fails as an internal security bill it’s equally worthless when it comes to dealing with border security. Although it appropraites funds for 11,000 more agents, they are assigned to DHS not to the border partrol and they are exclusively for monitoring business compliance. Instead of putting the focus on point of entry, they’re putting it on hassling businessmen who just want to be able to do business without excessive paperwork and endless reporting on their employees to the government. They want to make money, not be big-brother’s little henchmen.

The bill also includes funding for building a handful of detainment camps, and putting a fence in some key border areas. The expenses associated with these programs is enormous, and they probably provides less than a third of the manpower and facilities which would realisitically be needed to secure the border and round up and deport all the illegals. For example, the bill calls for sufficient detainment centers to hold 20,000 illegals at a time for processing and removal from the country. Even if those detainees were processed at a remarkably fast rate of 20,000 a week, it would take more than a decade to remove them all from the country, even assuming the patchwork of border fences and checkpoints did anything to stop them from coming right back.

The enforcement measures are mostly hand waving and pats on the head for the groups which are screaming most loudly. Workplace restrictions to please the unions. An English-only law to please the nativists. More money for the state national guards and welfare programs to please local politicians. It’s mostly just throwing money down a well with no hope of actually achieving anything, plus it puts most of the enforcement measures in the control of the Department of Homeland Security which has already proven it can waste money really well, but can’t find its ass with both hands.

Some of the most vocal critics of the bill are slamming it for being an ‘amnesty’ bill, but they’re missing the real problem. The real failure of the bill isn’t that it offers amnesty, it’s that it’s done in such a way that it’s worthless as any kind of control on immigration. The idea of giving amnesty – if we have to use that loaded word – is to make illegals legal in a controlled and gradual way and to give those who want to be US citizens the chance to achieve that dream, presumably thereby eliminating a significant portion of the relatively small number of Mexican citizens whose purpose in coming here illegally is to become permanent residents.

There are two rationales for this. First, that the laudable wisdom of wanting to be part of the US and provide a better life for their families outweighs the relatively trivial crime of being on the wrong side of a line drawn on a map. Second, that most illegals want to eventually return to Mexico, so why not clearly define the status of those who are here by giving those who want to stay the opportunity to do so and at the same time identify the rest whose status as temporary workers should be regularized as well.

Letting some illegals become citizens goes hand in hand with the creation of a guest worker program, so that when you resolve the status of those who want to stay here you can also figure out a way to address the needs of our economy and of the larger number of illegals who merely come here to work on a temporary basis. To work, such a program needs to provide enough slots to meet the demand for workers and clear rules and regulations for how long those workers can stay and what they can do while they are here. Their rights should be protected, they should pay taxes for the services they receive just like a citizen and they should go back to Mexico when they are no longer needed. It’s entirely possible that a well designed guest worker program could solve the illegal immigration problem all by itself without requiring any draconian enforcement methods. If the door was open to temporary legal workers, there would be virtually no motivation to come here illegally, and the problem would disappear. It even solves a lot of the problems of border and internal security, because when they come here legally we can register the immigrants rather than having to monitor legal citizens, and by keeping track of them we can make sure they don’t outstay their welcome.

Ok, so letting some illegals become citizens and some become guest workers doesn’t sound so bad, even if you call it ‘amnesty’. But make no mistake, the ‘Earned Legalization’ offered in the bill really is blanket amnesty for anyone who’s been here at least 5 years and for most who’ve been here for shorter periods under certain restrictions. It technically avoids being a pure amnesty because it requires the payment of a $2000 fine (conveniently paid directly to the DHS). It does have some attractive features, like requiring new citizens to learn English and pass a test on civics and history – probably making them better qualified as citizens than most native high-school graduates. It also requires the payment of back taxes and a criminal background check. The real shortcoming of the legalization process is the bottleneck it creates by limiting the number of potential citizenship-qualified visas to fewer than a million a year for working immigrants and their families. It also puts them in line behind existing applicants, so the time that would pass before those put on the path to legal status could become citizens would likely be quite long, though they could stay here and work throughout that period.

The bill’s larger failure is the total inadequacy of the guest worker program. The idea of the H-2C visa for temporary workers is a good one, but there are elements of its implementation which render it almost useless. First, it limits guest workers to two visa terms of 3 years each and would not allow them to stay and work in the country any longer than that. This is less than the average number of years most illegal immigrants spend here working before they return to Mexico, so that limitation may prove discouraging. More importantly, the bill sets a limit of only 200,000 temporary worker visas per year. When it’s likely that more than 50 times that many workers would take advantage of the program if it were available, setting such a low limit defeats the entire purpose of having a guest worker program. The program could act as an effective pressure valve on immigration, offering a legal alternative to applying for citizenship which would reduce the number of permanent immigrants to a reasonable level. Instead, with such a low limit on the number of visas, the bill makes it far easier to apply to become a citizen than to work here temporarily. This is exactly the wrong approach to take.

The priorities of the bill are turned entirely upside down. It ought to be encouraging workers to come and work and then go home to Mexico, fulfilling our labor needs and helping out the Mexican economy. Instead, it is structured so that it encourages every current illegal to stay here forever, making it worth their while not to go back to Mexico even if they want to. It makes no sense at all.

What you end up with here is basically three different immigration bills with three different and redundant approaches to dealing with immigration, rolled into one, with none of the parts working very well. The most complete and effective part of the bill is the combination legalization and guest worker program. Legalizing all those aliens ought to take a lot of pressure off and reduce the flow of illegals. But if we’re legalizing all these people and letting the overwhelming majority stay, and welcoming more guest workers in the future, why do we need all these draconian security measures? Why do we need detainment camps, biometric IDs, reams of paperwork for businesses, and billions for border security if we’re letting them in legally anyway? Plus, the burden the bill places on businesses cannot be overstated. All of the real enforcement responsibility falls on them in the form of rigid rules, lots of paperwork, and an army of new bureaucrats to harass them about it. Finally, why does the Department of Homeland security play such a large role? It’s running a lot of the new programs, plus it gets funding directly from fines, making it at least partially independent from Congressional oversight. All of this is more than a little troubling.

The bill as it stands is a mess. It tries to do everything and as a result does much more than is really necessary, spends a great deal of money, and is bound to lead to abuse. All of the largely unnecessary security measures probably won’t get used much, but when they do they’ll really screw up peoples lives. It’s somewhat reminiscent of the extreme measures which have been implemented as part of the War on Drugs. Apparently the folks in Washington have decided we’re scared enough of illegals that we’ll put up with anything they pass into law.

This bill comes nowhere near doing what it should and does nothing but sacrifice the rights of legal citizens, offer false hope to immigrants and make symbolic but meaningless gestures to placate fools and extremists. It’s as poisonously ill-conceived a piece of legislation as I’ve ever seen. It will not achieve the goals for which it was intended and will do incalculable harm in the process.

We could do more to limit immigration and do far less harm with a simple guest worker program which let Mexicans come to the US to work and eventually go back to Mexico without having to do it illegally. Keep good track of them so we can make sure they leave when they’re supposed to. Leave a door open for a reasonable number of them to become citizens. If they can work legally without becoming citizens, most of them will take that route. Why sacrifice our own rights and pay such a high price just to hurt our own economy and abuse people whose only crime is wanting to live and work in the United States?

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About Dave Nalle

Dave Nalle is Executive Director of the Texas Liberty Foundation, Chairman of the Center for Foreign and Defense Policy, South Central Regional Director for the Republican Liberty Caucus and an advisory board member at the Coalition to Reduce Spending. He was Texas State Director for the Gary Johnson Presidential campaign, an adviser to the Ted Cruz senatorial campaign, Communications Director for the Travis County Republican Party and National Chairman of the Republican Liberty Caucus. He has also consulted on many political campaigns, specializing in messaging. Before focusing on political activism, he owned or was a partner in several businesses in the publishing industry and taught college-level history for 20 years.
  • daryl d

    Love how the end of the second paragraph leads into the third. Great article.

  • http://www.elitebloggers.com Dave Nalle

    Brain worms might indeed be the only way to explain the behavior of Congress.

    Dave

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/clavos Clavos

    There is no question that the “immigration plan” legislation currently before Congress is an unmitigated disaster guaranteed to fail, and offering none of the interested parties a satisfactory outcome.

    A solid guest worker program, with accountability, and taking into account the needs and goals of both our economy and those of the immigrants, is the most logical way to approach (and solve) the illegal immigration problem.

    However, Dave, I do disagree with you on one point. I don’t think we should offer anyone who has come here illegally the opportunity to become a citizen, regardless of how many conditions are attached. I think that if we do, we’re sending a very bad signal to all the rest of the people in the world who want to come here. I think we should continue with our present system (the basics, at least; it could use some tweaking) of quotas for those who want to come with a track toward eventual citizenship, not just for work.

    We should have two programs: one for guest workers (and all the present crop of illegals would only be eligible for it, not citizenship); and one for people wishing to become citizens.

    Those illegals who are here and who are the parents of so-called “anchor babies” could be allowed to stay as guest workers until the kids attain majority. The future children of guest workers should not acquire automatic citizenship, and those born to green card immigrants would acquire it only when their parents actually become citizens.

  • http://www.elitebloggers.com Dave Nalle

    However, Dave, I do disagree with you on one point. I don’t think we should offer anyone who has come here illegally the opportunity to become a citizen, regardless of how many conditions are attached. I think that if we do, we’re sending a very bad signal to all the rest of the people in the world who want to come here. I think we should continue with our present system (the basics, at least; it could use some tweaking) of quotas for those who want to come with a track toward eventual citizenship, not just for work.

    I’m not sure we disagree. I did say in the article that the easy terms for moving from illegal to citizen applicant in the current bill were unacceptable. I didn’t go beyond that. As the bill is written, the easy amnesty undermines the guest worker program – which is already too limited to be effective. I agree that the guest worker program is the best weapon in fighting illegal immigration. But I do think that allowing a few more mexicans in as citizens won’t do much harm. But it has to be MORE difficult to become a citizen than a guest worker, not easier.

    Dave

  • bliffle

    Nothing we do on this side of the border will improve the situation.

  • daryl d

    I am open to giving legal status to some, but granting citizenship is a slap in the face to immigrants who come here legally.

  • Kelmer

    Anyone who wants to go to come to our country and become a citizen of our country should be able to do so, as long as they are/promise to be productive members of society. To me at least, this is the promise which is spoken by the words “Give us your poor, your tired, your huddles masses longing to be free…” It is what makes our country great.

    A guest worker program that allows workers to become citizens after an appropriate period of time, assuming they have followed the rules, paid their taxes, kept out of prison, etc etc, seems like the most fair system (perhaps after the H2C visa runs out). After those 6 years you should have to become either a legal resident with a green card, since no one can really call 6 years “temporary”, or become a full-fledged citizen.

  • Jerry

    “Instead of a comprehensive, thoroughly developed and sensible plan for dealing with all aspects of the immigration issue, what they’re considering passing is a horrible mish-mash of crackpot ideas, half-measures and pandering which will do nothing effective to control immigration…”

    Kind of like everything else Bush has touched?

  • Jerry

    “But if we’re legalizing all these people and letting the overwhelming majority stay, and welcoming more guest workers in the future, why do we need all these draconian security measures? Why do we need detainment camps, biometric IDs, reams of paperwork for businesses, and billions for border security if we’re letting them in legally anyway?”

    Does make me wonder if the NAU conspiracy crowd is on to something.

  • http://www.elitebloggers.com Dave Nalle

    A guest worker program that allows workers to become citizens after an appropriate period of time, assuming they have followed the rules, paid their taxes, kept out of prison, etc etc, seems like the most fair system (perhaps after the H2C visa runs out). After those 6 years you should have to become either a legal resident with a green card, since no one can really call 6 years “temporary”, or become a full-fledged citizen.

    I generally agree with this, Kelmser, but studies have shown that the average length of stay for illegals who eventually return to Mexico is more like 8 years, so 6 is probably not enough for them to build up the nest egg they want in order to start a business and enter the middle class in Mexico. And a lot of these relatively long-term workers don’t really want to become citizens of the US because the money they earn here can go a long way in Mexico.

    And as Bliffle (I think) pointed out earlier, the real solution to this problem is ultimately to raise up the economy of Mexico and create more opportunities there. Letting immigrants save money and send it or take it home with them is one part of that.

    Dave

  • http://www.elitebloggers.com Dave Nalle

    bliffle: Nothing we do on this side of the border will improve the situation.

    Generally a good point, except that a guest worker program here would continue to feed money into Mexico and into the hands of the poor rather than the elites, helping to reduce inequality and create the middle class the country so desperately needs.

    daryl d: I am open to giving legal status to some, but granting citizenship is a slap in the face to immigrants who come here legally.

    To be fair, the bill does impose measures to make sure that all of those waiting to become citizens are put ahead of any illegals, and it also puts some other barriers in the way of current illegals which could drag their wait time out considerably.

    If I were cynical I might guess that the reason for this is that demographically older immigrants are more likely to vote conservatively.

    Dave

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/clavos Clavos

    daryl d’s observation is one of the reasons I’m not in favor of granting citizenship to any of the current illegals.

  • moonraven

    Immigration, water and energy issues are the primary challenges of this century.

    Bigotry gets one nowhere very fast.

    The reality is that folks are going to continue their migrative patterns from countries with no economic growth–no matter how many walls you build with THEIR labor.

    Migrants don’t all want to be citizens of the countries they are entering. But the do want to have their human rights preserved.

    The choice between receiving a 12 or a 16 gauge shotgun shell is not really what I am talking about.