A Realistic Path to Legal Immigration

By Jorge G. Castaneda and Tamar Jacoby
Tuesday, July 21, 2009

President Obama looks to be gearing up to make good on his campaign promise of comprehensive immigration reform. But unlike in 2006, when Democratic and Republican reformers agreed on what was needed in an overhaul, this year there's a new fault line.

It surfaced last month when Obama called lawmakers to the White House to discuss immigration, and Sen. John McCain led pro-reform Republicans in pushing back against the president. Obama had said little about what he wants in a bill -- in fact, he has been studiously vague. But McCain knew enough about what has (and has not) been said recently by immigration experts close to the White House and those pushing Obama to take up reform that he felt it necessary to launch a preemptive strike.

This year, in contrast to 2006, organized labor and many Latino advocates are thinking about slicing up the reform package and moving forward with a piecemeal approach: a bill that legalizes the unauthorized immigrants already in the United States -- call them the "stock" -- but makes no provision for those who will want to work north of the border in years ahead, the future "flow."

The reasoning is clear: With unemployment edging toward 10 percent, it's hard to argue that the United States needs foreign workers. And organized labor, particularly the AFL-CIO, has seized on the opportunity to graft its larger agenda onto the immigration debate.

But this view is shortsighted. Just as it would have been a mistake in a Republican era to pass an expanded temporary worker program but leave out legalization and a path to citizenship, so, too, would it be a mistake now to legalize immigrants who are here without creating a way for future workers to enter the United States legally.

To understand why, consider U.S. politics. With no pipeline for future workers, McCain will not vote for the bill. Without him, there will be no other Senate Republicans. And without Senate Republicans, there won't be enough Democrats, given the inevitable defections among Blue Dogs, New Democrats and other moderates.

Then there is Mexican politics. This is not discussed much on Capitol Hill, but the United States can't hope to implement an immigration overhaul without help from Mexico -- help administering legalization and dissuading future illegal immigration. And no Mexican government can afford to cooperate with Washington unless the reform includes a significant increase in temporary worker visas. This was true during the administration of President Vicente Fox, and it's even truer today for the beleaguered President Felipe Calderón.

But ultimately, the problem with "legalization only" is bigger than politics in either country. The economic downturn may have cut the traffic from Mexico -- as much as 25 percent, by some estimates. Yet once the economy begins to recover, demographic and economic reality will kick in again on both sides of the border.

When the economy begins recovering, U.S. housing starts will climb, restaurants will fill up again, Americans will take the vacations they've been putting off and more. Revitalized businesses will once again need foreign workers for jobs that increasingly educated Americans do not want.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, for five to 10 more years at least, the working-age population will continue to grow faster than the number of decent-paying jobs, and young workers will continue to want to go where they can make a better living. It's supply and demand -- to the benefit of both countries.

The United States can recognize this reality and harness it -- or pretend it doesn't exist and live with the costs of denial. If these workers cannot enter the United States legally, they will find ways to enter illegally, no matter how much border and work-site enforcement is in place, no matter how dangerous the trip or how high the price. Hoping that people will stop coming is as illusory as thinking that those already in the United States will pack up and go home.

The bottom line is that the only way to stop illegal outflows from Mexico is to legalize them, adapting the law to reality, not the other way around.

Some have suggested a "third way": creating a commission to determine how many workers are needed in the United States. But it's hard to see how that would work. Discredited as markets are today, they're still the best way to match supply with demand. Though markets must be regulated, they don't work very well when they're micromanaged. Will a commission be able to determine how many Mexican workers are needed from month to month -- and then ensure that only that number enters the country? Not very likely.

Comprehensive immigration reform makes sense for the United States and for Mexico for economic and ethical reasons; it's good foreign and domestic policy. What doesn't make sense is a seemingly expedient but ultimately unworkable piecemeal approach. Neither legalization without future flows nor future flows without legalization will solve the problem. Only the two together can get the job done.

Jorge G. Castaneda was foreign secretary of Mexico from 2000 to 2003 in the government of Vicente Fox. He teaches international relations at New York University. Tamar Jacoby is president of Washington-based ImmigrationWorks, a national federation of employers advocating immigration reform.

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