Wealth of Nations May 2007

Still Baffled by Immigration

The immigration deal will not work, and it's hard to believe that the Senate negotiators honestly think otherwise.

In a previous column (see "The Baffling Politics of Immigration," 5/12/07, p. 20), I brusquely dismissed the "grand bargain" on immigration that was about to emerge from months of bipartisan talks in the Senate. Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania had given an outline of the deal to reporters. "If the measure he sketched really is a breakthrough grand bargain," I wrote, "please don't show me any squalid phony compromises."

On reflection, and now that the actual bill is before the Senate, I would like to withdraw the word "squalid." That was over the top, and I apologize.

"Phony," I stand by.

The measure before the Senate instantly attracted fire from all sides. That was bound to happen, and is no reflection on the quality of the bill. To the contrary, to be attacked by anti-immigrant zealots and pro-immigrant zealots is a good sign. It would have been a bad sign if all the howls had come from only one side. The proposal is a good-faith effort by the negotiators from the Democratic and Republican parties, and from the White House, who have labored at this task for months.

The reformers are right that a comprehensive measure of the general kind they propose is needed. The current system is a shambles—about the only thing that everybody who addresses this issue can agree on. Unlike their most vocal critics, the Senate negotiators all showed a willingness to compromise, and without that, nothing will get done. On top of all this, the basic elements of the plan they set out are not wrong. Intelligent reform requires separate but coordinated pieces to deal with illegal immigrants already here, future immigrants, and security at the border. The bill contains all three carefully crafted elements.

Well, again, I should not have said "squalid." But all the sincere effort and spirit of compromise in the world will not make a bad law a good law—not even if that bad law is better than a bunch of even worse ideas now circulating. This bill will not work, and I find it hard to accept that the Senate negotiators honestly believe otherwise. Take a moment to consider how the three parts of the Senate grand bargain, if it is enacted without amendment, would actually function.

The first component is border security. The bill calls for an increase of 18,000 in the Border Patrol; 200 miles of new vehicle barriers and another 400 miles of fencing; 70 ground-based surveillance towers along the border with Mexico; deployment of four pilotless aircraft and related ground systems; facilities for the detention of 27,500 illegals a day; and the introduction of new identification procedures and technologies to stop unauthorized workers from getting jobs. It is quite a list. How long to accomplish it? The Homeland Security Department says 18 months. With all due regard for the celebrated efficiency of that department, I would allow a bit longer.

If all this were done, would the border then be secure? This must be doubtful. Just how far such measures would reduce the inflow of illegal immigrants from Central and South America is hard to say, but you would have to be an optimist to believe that the border won't leak once all this is in hand. And that matters because the law makes no provision for dealing with a continuing substantial inflow of illegal migrants, except to instruct that they be detained and deported.

Other aspects of the law, to which we will turn in a moment, give illegal workers already in the United States an option to remain on a legal basis, but only if they were here before the start of this year. Tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands, of new illegal immigrants have arrived since then. Thus each passing month adds to the numbers that the law insists must be sent home—and the number is going to keep on rising, even if the pace slows once the new border measures are up and running. This is especially likely if the restrictions on legal entry going forward are too tight (as I will argue in a moment they are).

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