The Big Idea

Frist, Do No Harm

Why we don’t need an immigration reform bill.

The immigration fight in Congress is shaping up as an epic battle of bad ideas. On one side is the House Alamo caucus, which in December passed a bill that is principled, impractical, and gratuitously cruel. It would turn being in the United States without a valid visa into an “aggravated” felony, make it a crime for good Samaritans and even family members to help illegal immigrants, and erect a 700-mile-long fence that would turn our Southern border into a DMZ.

This nationalist, punitive approach, which has drawn the support of Senate Majority Leader Bill First, cuts against our immigrant tradition, our humane values, and our economic needs. Slamming the gates shut in this way would further damage America’s image in the world and especially harm relations with our Mexican neighbors, who for some reason think it rude of us to want to decorate our shared property line with a concrete wall topped with concertina wire and guard towers.

At the opposite end of the spectrum is the bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. Ted Kennedy and John McCain, which last week passed the Senate judiciary committee. It would let the estimated 12 million illegal residents of the United States achieve full citizenship, grant an additional 400,000 green cards per year, create a program for agricultural “guest workers,” and tighten border security. With the exception of the extra green cards, these are also lousy ideas. The amnesty offer would reward those who jumped the queue (as the last amnesty did) while penalizing those who have waited patiently for legal visas. As for the “guest worker” provision, a pet idea of President Bush’s, it simply feels exploitative and un-American to allow migrants in without giving them a shot at becoming citizens. And stepped-up border enforcement has a terrible record as well. As the Princeton sociologist Douglas Massey has been arguing, an enormous increase in border security spending in the past two decades has been counterproductive, perversely resulting in more illegal migrants getting into the United States from Mexico, more of them dying on the journey, and fewer of them leaving once they’re here. (Click here   for an explanation of why this is happening.)

What’s more, the House bill and the Senate judiciary committee bill are entirely incompatible. You can’t crack down on illegal immigration and liberalize it at the same time. The kind of split-the-difference compromise that is likely to result from a House-Senate-White House negotiation will surely be futile and wasteful. You can already see the outlines of another domestic policy disaster emerging: Bush will sign a law that threatens toughness but declines to apply it, that costs billions to administer but fails to reduce illegal immigration, and that creates massive new bureaucratic and legal headaches for everyone. This would be in keeping with past efforts, such as the big 1986 immigration reform bill, which promised serious sanctions against employers of illegals, has never been enforced, and has produced results the opposite of those intended. 

As a bold alternative, why not pass no immigration bill at all? The status quo of American immigration is certainly flawed. We are turning a blind eye to widespread lawbreaking and probably driving down low-end wages, at least to some degree. On the other hand, the system works in its way. The most motivated, tenacious, and enterprising immigrants, who are therefore the most economically desirable, find a way around the barriers we erect. Once here, they help our economy sustain a high rate of growth and subsidize our Social Security system. In return, those who choose to stay have a chance to create better lives for their children. Do we really want to put an end to this deal?

America always has tolerated, and probably always must tolerate, such flawed-but-functional arrangements when it comes to immigration. Our country was built by people who did not wait for engraved invitations. New arrivals draw hostility from native-born workers with whom they compete for jobs, even though the native-born can usually recount immigrant family sagas themselves. As a result, the national attitude toward immigration is marked by ambivalence. We need their muscle. We admire their pluck and sacrifice. At the same time, we object to having to compete with them, we resent their differences, and we doubt their commitment to our values. Our immigration policies will never be fully rational because our feelings about a process so central to the American experience remain contradictory.

That’s not to say that we cannot improve immigration policy. Recognizing that globalization means traffic in labor as well as in capital and goods, we should provide many more legal work visas and green cards, especially for high-tech workers, who drive the most innovative sector of the American economy. Employers who wittingly hire illegal workers should suffer the consequences provided under existing but ignored law. This is the one step that would surely make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to find work here and thereby address the unfairness issue much more efficiently than tighter border security would.

What we don’t need is a major reform bill. Even in all-Republican Washington, there remains a strong tendency to measure success on the basis of how much massive federal legislation you can shovel out the door. With the ineffectual No Child Left Behind education bill and the massively confusing and wasteful Medicare prescription drug bill, the Bush-era tally stands at two major social policy fiascos. In the coming months, the president and Congress have an opportunity not to add a third.