Reform Immigration, but Don't Create Second-Class Non-Citizens

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The restrictionists don't like it, but rising stars of the GOP are lining up behind "comprehensive reform." But must we have "guest workers"?

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Immigration still divides the Republican Party. Its restrictionist wing occasionally gets riled up and flexes its muscles, inspiring politicians like Joe Arpaio and Tom Tancredo to seize upon the issue. But the fervor always dies down, advisers like Karl Rove reassert the importance of the Hispanic vote, and presidential aspirants -- George W. Bush and John McCain during the aughts, Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan today -- start talking about "comprehensive immigration reform," a term also embraced by liberals looking for a bipartisan deal. The business community would get a guest-worker program. Illegal immigrants would get a "path to citizenship." Restrictionists would theoretically get better border enforcement than there is today.

It isn't a deal that I like.

I'm all for more legal immigration, especially for highly skilled workers, and I want people who sneaked into the United States, worked or studied, and committed no crimes to get citizenship.

But a guest-worker program?

I'd rather permit more new citizens to come here permanently, as prospective citizens, than to institutionalize a sort of second-class non-citizenship that treats people as labor. I am here today, along with most of the restrictionists in America, because the legislators of bygone decades permitted waves of immigrants to come here legally (and not as guest workers, either -- as full citizens). When I read deep into New York City history about the crowded tenements, street gangs, ethnic machine politics, and disease outbreaks associated with the waves of European immigration, and then hear people who are far less affected complaining bitterly today about (and this is a thing) having to press one for English, I wonder, as the tiniest violins play, if they ever stop to reflect that they wouldn't be here if bygone generations were as restrictionist as they are.  

That isn't to say that immigration today, legal and illegal, doesn't have costs in addition to its benefits. For example, it makes economic competition tougher for Americans without high-school diplomas. There are still immigrant gangs. And kids who grow up in non-English-speaking homes impose higher costs on public schools. I feel for Americans who are made worse off as a result, but they were lucky enough to be born in one of the world's richest countries, and the fact that immigration makes them a bit worse off isn't a reason to stop it given that (1) it makes many Americans better off and (2) it makes the immigrants themselves a lot better off.

Crime is down. And while it's tough to face increased wage competition in America, it's not nearly so tough as knowing that your family is unable to escape a country that'll consign you and your children to suffering and poverty.   

So anyway, Rubio and Ryan are speaking up in favor of "comprehensive immigration reform," and Mark Krikorian, National Review's resident restrictionist, doesn't like it. This is partly because he doesn't believe the "tougher border enforcement" piece of the compromise is actually going to happen. Well, let's be honest, he's probably right -- I don't think immigration enforcement is likely to get much better than it is now. And yet he is wrong, too. Here's how he puts it:

There's one central question that Rubio and Ryan need to be asked: Do they trust President Obama to enforce the immigration laws in the future, after today's illegals have been legalized? If they answer "yes," then they need to explain why they think he'd suddenly become committed to enforcement after four years of downgrading immigration law enforcement, and more generally acting as though the U.S. Code were a body of suggestions rather than laws.

This is written as if Obama has been an especially unreliable president on border enforcement. As best I can tell, that isn't true. Here's how Politifact sums up his tenure thus far: 

According to current figures from Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- the federal agency responsible for deportations -- Obama has removed 1.4 million people during his 42 months in office so far. Technically, that's fewer than under George W. Bush, whose cumulative total was 2 million. But Bush's number covers eight full years, which doesn't allow an apples-to-apples comparison. If you instead compare the two presidents' monthly averages, it works out to 32,886 for Obama and 20,964 for Bush, putting Obama clearly in the lead. Bill Clinton is far behind with 869,676 total and 9,059 per month. All previous occupants of the White House going back to 1892 fell well short of the level of the three most recent presidents.
In what sense has Obama presided over "four years of downgrading immigration law enforcement"? It's Obama's record-breaking deportations that make me think restrictionists have nothing to gain from "comprehensive immigration reform." The "amnesty for tougher enforcement" compromise doesn't make sense if you're someone for whom tougher enforcement is the draw. Personally, I think you'd substantially decrease both human misery and the pathologies associated with "living in the shadows" if a "path to citizenship" were passed. Krikorian won't go along with that because he's worried it'll lead to "another 11 million illegal aliens a few years down the road." Given economic conditions in the U.S. and Mexico, which I take to be the main factors influencing immigration, I doubt he's right. We ought to be able to pass an immigration-reform bill that improves on the status quo.

Restrictionists can take solace in the fact that if amnesty happens, there might not be more immigrants, just fewer people breaking the law. Or maybe they'll manage to get riled up as in years past and stop "comprehensive reform." But I doubt Rubio and Ryan are betting on the side that winds up losing this fight.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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