Sound and Fury of Immigration Debate
“Enforcement first” has become the mantra of conservatives opposed to comprehensive immigration. However, what opponents refuse to recognize is that illegal immigration is under better control today than at any point in the last half century. Last year, net immigration from Mexico was zero – as many immigrants (legal and illegal) left the United States as came here. The flow of illegal immigrants has plummeted in the last few years – down to the lowest level since the 1970s. What’s more, the Obama administration has deported more illegal immigrants than any previous administration since the Great Depression - including 450,000 last year.
We now spend more – nearly $18 billion dollars – on border enforcement than we do on all other federal policing programs combined. We have built 649 miles of border fencing and vehicle barriers (of the 652 miles mandated in the 2006 Security Fence Act). Plus we have put into place high-tech surveillance that was unthinkable in past, when proportionally many more illegal immigrants crossed our borders from Mexico. Before passage of the Bracero Program, a temporary visa system for agricultural workers in the post-World War II era, about a million illegal immigrants came into the U.S. This is the equivalent of 2 million illegal immigrants when adjusted for current population size.
The border with Mexico is more secure than it has ever been. So why not declare victory and move forward in reforming outdated laws that are largely unenforceable?
The most contentious issue facing lawmakers now is what to do about the 11 million illegal immigrants who currently reside in the U.S. Some Republicans, most prominently Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Marco Rubio and Jeff Flake, who outlined a bipartisan plan with four Democrats this week, want to give legal status to those illegal immigrants so that they can remain here and work. While the specifics of legislation have yet to be ironed out, the proposal would require illegal immigrants to pay substantial fines, undergo background checks to prove they have not broken other laws and pay any back taxes owed. This is hardly “amnesty” as critics complain; it is applying a proportionate penalty for the commission of a civil offense.
Critics also claim giving legal status to those already residing her illegally – as President Reagan did in 1986 – will only encourage more people to come illegally. The argument sounds right given the number of illegal immigrants who have come and settled her since 1986. What critics don’t take into account, however, is the 1986 law was flawed from the beginning – and not because it didn’t call for stricter enforcement. The flaw is that it never allowed for immigration inflow to be based on the needs of the U.S. economy and to be driven by the market rather than federal bureaucrats.
Even worse, the employer sanctions put in place in the 1986 law have proven unenforceable – and not because evil employers are out there recruiting and exploiting illegal workers. The law requires every person who hires an individual to perform work on his or her behalf – including babysitting, cutting lawns or housecleaning – to collect and maintain information on the worker’s legal status, even if that person does only occasional, part-time work and is American-born.
Most individuals ignore the law (or at least don’t fill out the forms and keep them for at least one year after employment is terminated), though the government rarely goes after them. But employers, big and small, do so at their peril. They face civil and criminal prosecution that can amount to millions of dollars in fines. So employers collect the required data, forcing every prospective employee (including American citizens) to produce proof of eligibility to work. The result has been a mountain of bureaucratic red tape, which has also spawned a lucrative and dangerous new industry: identity fraud and the forging of documents for those who lack legal documents.
The best way to fix the problem of illegal immigration is to let the market decide how many people come each year. We already know roughly what the market has absorbed over the last twenty years or so, just look at the combined number of legal and illegal immigrants who came. The market, not tougher enforcement, is a far better regulator – and one that conservatives especially should embrace. But don’t expect logic or ideological consistency to dominate the debate when rhetoric and political opportunism have provided the sound and fury on this issue for decades.
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