The Immigration Impasse: A Way Out

By Robert J. Samuelson
Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Our immigration debate is at an impasse. The House has passed a mean-spirited and delusional bill that focuses heavily on border security and would criminalize some humanitarian acts that aid immigrants. As for the 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already here, the supposition is that they should somehow go home. Just how is unclear. Meanwhile, the Senate seems ready to authorize up to 400,000 "guest workers" annually. Guest workers, also endorsed by President Bush, would reduce illegal immigration by giving many of the same people -- mainly poor and unskilled Mexicans -- work permits. The Senate approach also is delusional and undesirable. It would increase American poverty under the guise of curing worker "shortages."

We can do better, but chances are we won't. In 2004 immigrants accounted for nearly 12 percent of the population, the highest share since the 1920s. The fact that there are so many immigrants makes discussion harder because passions on both sides are so easily aroused. Already, hundreds of thousands of Hispanics have marched in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington and elsewhere. But broader public opinion is also increasingly agitated. A new survey by the Pew Hispanic Center finds that 52 percent of Americans think immigrants "are a burden because they take jobs [and] housing." That's up sharply from 38 percent in 2000.

In this climate, the immigration debate has become an exercise in political public relations, often disconnected from practical realities. Republicans and Democrats are trying in different ways to appease middle-class anxieties without alienating present and future Hispanic voters. The one saving grace is that we may still have time to fashion a more sensible consensus. By the Pew poll, most Americans aren't yet so fearful of immigration that they aren't open to reason and evidence. Only 21 percent see immigration as a "very big problem" in their localities, although responses are higher in areas of greater immigration (55 percent in Phoenix, 36 percent in Las Vegas).

Let me outline what I think such a consensus might be. It has three elements and borrows from both House and Senate approaches.

· Strengthen border and employer enforcement. Unless it's stopped, the present illegal immigration of an estimated 500,000 people annually will overwhelm any system. The main lure is jobs. That's why it's essential to adopt a mandatory requirement for employers to verify new workers -- electronic checking of documents. Companies that hire illegal immigrants should be penalized heavily. But it's also essential to dry up the supply. In an earlier column, I supported the construction of fences or walls, 20 to 30 feet high, along the Mexican border. They would, I think, significantly reduce the flow, though some would still come by overstaying student and tourist visas.

· Grant amnesty to existing illegal immigrants . President Bush and many Republicans oppose this, but it's essential. We can't run an immigration system that condones mass illegality. Most illegal immigrants deserve legal standing -- and a path to citizenship. Although they "broke the law," we (meaning American society) encouraged them by inadequately policing the border and employers. Most won't voluntarily return home, where typical wages are 80 percent lower. Trying to force them back would create a huge backlash. We'd have stories of parents being torn from their American-born children. Companies would complain that government was destroying their firms by removing longtime, diligent workers. Finally, the failure to legalize today's illegal workers would weaken companies' incentives to comply with checks of new workers. If firms were already breaking the law to stay in business, why not take the added risk?

· Forget guest workers . Maybe a few job categories (sheepherders) with existing guest worker programs are justified. But businesses' complaints of widespread labor "shortages" mainly put a respectable face on their thirst for cheap labor. Most guest workers won't go home, even if required (see above). They'll become illegal immigrants or citizens. Either way, adding poor people is bad social policy. It would bloat the demand for government social services. And it would hurt today's poor -- including other immigrants and many African Americans -- by keeping wages down. Jobs attracting lots of immigrants have low wage increases. From 2002 to 2004, median hourly wages rose only 2 percent for construction laborers and 3.6 percent for dishwashers.

On paper, this package has something for everyone. It lifts anxiety for today's illegal immigrants and acknowledges their dignity. It lets companies keep today's illegal workers. It toughens border and employer policing. But it would also disappoint everyone. For business groups, immigration advocates and Bush, there would be no new guest workers. The president and House Republicans would have to swallow amnesty, though maybe they could change the label and debate the details. One Senate proposal envisions an 11-year transition period and a requirement to learn English.

I don't claim that this approach would succeed. Preventing illegal immigration may prove impossible. If so, we'll need to rethink immigration policy fundamentally. But I do believe this approach has better chances of success than most of the congressional proposals. Unless we legalize today's illegal immigrants and reject large-scale guest worker programs, we will indefinitely have two tiers of immigrants -- legal and illegal -- with the prospect that the stigma of illegality will taint the legal. By success, I mean that new immigrants gradually think of themselves as Americans and that most slowly disperse all along the economic spectrum. And immigration ceases to be a major issue, because it is no longer a source of large social and economic conflicts.

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