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.

So consider. One of the things the bill purports to recognize is that mass deportation of the 12 million illegal immigrants thought to be in the country is both impractical and undesirable (not least because of the effects on the U.S. economy). But is the mass deportation of, say, a million immigrants, or 2 million, much more practical or desirable? This is the outcome that the bill implicitly envisages even if, in every other respect, all goes to plan. Multiply that by two, on a very conservative estimate, for the illegal immigrants already here who opt not to apply for legal status under the terms of the new law. Add a hundred thousand a year, maybe, for new illegal immigrants who manage to slip through even after the border has been strengthened. In other words, suppose the bill is enacted: Ten years from now, what has been gained?

A key part of the new law is certification by Homeland Security that the new border measures are in place. Only then do new visa schemes for existing illegals and future guest workers kick in. That is a puzzling notion in its own right. Because the border leaks so much, why not allow some of the immigrants who are coming anyway to arrive on a legal basis starting now, and take steps to tighten the border in the meantime?

The answer is politics: The framers of the compromise want to underline how tough they are being on illegal immigrants by saying the border measures must come first. But the sequencing makes no sense. Surely the right approach, on their own analysis, would be to say, "Make the border secure as fast as possible, and until then set rules that allow for the fact that the border still leaks." Instead they are saying, "Make the border secure as fast as possible, and in the meantime let's pretend it already is."

The provisions to legalize existing illegal workers have predictably aroused cries of "amnesty." Put to one side the issue of whether amnesties are always a bad idea. What the Senate bill offers existing illegal workers is plainly not an amnesty. It calls for fines and charges of $5,000. Considering what unskilled immigrant workers make, that seems a more than adequate punishment if your only crime was to come here and work.

Moreover, in return for paying the fine—and identifying themselves to the authorities—these workers are not promised secure legal status. All they get in the first instance is temporary permission to stay and the right to apply for a new Z visa. Who knows whether those applications will succeed—or when, since Z visas would not be issued until the secure-border "triggers" had been activated. If the idea is to get qualifying illegal immigrants (guilty of no other crimes) onto a secure legal footing, it might take more than this—unless and until America finds the will and the means to deport millions of workers.

In addition, the proposed law creates a Y visa for temporary workers. This, too, is far from luxurious dispensation. Workers would be allowed a maximum of three spells of two years working in the United States, with a year abroad after each spell. After that, no more temporary work in the United States. Provision for accompanying close relatives would be minimal. Y visa workers bringing dependents with them would get one two-year spell only. The illegal route is still going to look very tempting, if this is the best alternative. That border better be secured.

The bill is not as bad as it might have been, and not as bad is it may get in the coming days—but this does not make it a good bill. It is too harsh, both to illegals already here and to tomorrow's would-be immigrants. It is harsher than it ought to be to secure the maximum economic benefits of immigration for the country. And it is harsher than it can afford to be if it is to be properly enforceable: Too strict a regime forces too much reliance on fallible border security.

Plainly, the flow of new arrivals has to be restricted and regulated. There is no argument about this. But the right strategy has to recognize the practical limits in a free country to securing the border, and balance efforts in that direction with a visa regime that meets the country's economic needs while lessening the incentives to migrate illegally. It is not an easy balance to strike, but the Senate bill isn't even close. And, yes, I say this knowing that after a spell of debate and amendment, the original "grand bargain" might seem, by comparison, a pearl of legislative wisdom.

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