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Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Immigration Reform, Part II: A Border Is a Border, and the Benefits of Legal Immigration

My discussion of immigration policy continues with talk of the border and of the benefits of legal immigration. Within reason, where legal immigrants are concerned, I say: the more, the better. NEW: Listen to an audio podcast of this post.

In a recent post (regrettably, not as recent as I hoped, due to chronic TTTB), I articulated five postulates, on the basis of which I believe it is possible to build a reasonable, coherent, sustainable, politically viable immigration policy for the United States. You may want to review that discussion before proceeding, but here I'll merely list the postulates themselves, without rehashing the discussion:

  • Compromise is necessary.
  • Legal immigration is good.
  • The invasion of the southwestern United States by criminal organizations trafficking in drugs and humans must be repelled.
  • The current immigration bureaucracy is grossly dysfunctional and must be remade.
  • A healthy sense of humanity should guide our efforts.

My intention here is not to pin down every detail of an appropriate immigration and border policy, but to draw the general outlines. I'm well aware that the topic is more complex than my treatment of it can be, and many of the details themselves can be quite difficult. But we have to start somewhere, and agreeing on the general outlines of a policy seems like the sanest starting point.

Oh, one more thing. For this to work, you really have to be in the mood for a good fantasy, because we're fantasizing together that it's possible to have a calm, rational discussion of immigration policy. I tried to help you get in the mood last time.

Three Basic Questions

We might divide the issue into these admittedly interrelated questions:

  1. What should we do at the border?
  2. What should we do with the illegals who are already here and with those who employ them?
  3. What should we do with those who are here or want to come here legally, and how much access should they have to government benefits and services?

We ought to bear in mind, as we proceed, that doing nothing -- or making no changes to what we're already doing -- is always an option which deserves consideration. I offer this as a general principle, but I'm certainly not suggesting that we change nothing and call that our comprehensive immigration strategy. Soon enough, if we take that course, the sociopolitical pot will boil over. Or it will boil dry, and we'll have a whole different kind of melting pot on the stove. Then, as politics tend to go in desperate times, we'll do something radical and stupid -- which precise thing depending on which half-baked political faction is ascendant at the moment.

Still, the possibility of doing (or changing) nothing with respect to one or more of these smaller questions exists and deserves at least passing mention.

The Border

I know it's easier said than done, both practically and politically, but the goal of our border policy should be to close the border to illegal immigration and other illegal activity, and to leave it wide open to legal immigration and other legal activity. Both of these, as it happens, are controversial positions. There is a large contingent which would prefer to act as if borders did not exist, because they view nationalism as evil or old-fashioned. There is another contingent, generally small but perhaps slightly swollen now by federal inaction, which would prefer that there be no immigration at all. For my part, I think we need a border -- which is good, because we have one -- and, if we're going to have one, it ought to be a border. That is, it ought to be crossed legally but not illegally.

I believe we have the technical and military capability to close the border to illegal activity -- and make no mistake, securing borders is an appropriate mission for military forces. However, this capability will matter little, if our policy is not also politically viable. At least some of the factions involved will not support serious enforcement of our border unless they are satisfied by the rest of our proposed policy, so we need a more comprehensive policy than a-border-is-a-border-is-a-border. (By the way, whether the Mexican government will support our policy or not seems immaterial; our policy cannot depend on their support, if it is to succeed.)

Forgive my optimistic assumptions, but depending on how catastrophic the 2010 and 2012 elections are for Democrats and how triumphant they are for conservatives (not quite identical outcomes), closing the border to illegal activity may actually seem like enough of a policy, at least to a temporary political majority. But even if such a policy could emerge from Congress and the Oval Office, it would not be sustainable. Power changes hands fairly regularly in the United States; within a few years, that temporary majority would dissolve. We want a greater consensus and more continuity than that.

As to the viability of doing nothing -- more precisely, changing nothing, leaving things the same as they are -- it is possible that the current (supposedly, lately increased) level of border enforcement will be adequate sometime in the future, if the rest of our policy is functional and coherent. That is, it may be enough to keep a closed border closed. But we're not there yet, or even close; it's currently a porous border, with organized criminal enterprises operating on both sides of it. For the present, for the sake of the rest of our policy, I believe we must substantially increase our efforts in the border zone while everything else shakes out.

Legal Immigration (First Pass)

I postulated that (presumably legal) immigration is good. I know this is not a consensus, but most of the people who think otherwise are themselves the offspring of immigrants. I do not want to turn the present discussion into an extended debate about whether immigration itself is good, but I will explain at least some of my reasons for favoring a very generous legal immigration policy.

One reason is economic. Immigrants are a major and necessary part of the American work force. Moreover, there's plenty of room for more. Our economy is capable of creating many new jobs, especially when people are generally hard working. It is economically naive to believe that there is some fixed number of American jobs, so that immigrants necessarily displace natural-born citizens, leaving them unemployed. In a properly functioning free economy, growth allows larger and larger numbers of people to enjoy progressively larger pieces of the proverbial pie.

Furthermore, greater productivity and a substantially larger tax base will help our urgently necessary efforts to address gargantuan debts and deficits, which are complicated by expensive promises made by government to citizens. We have too many people trying to ride in our cart and too few trying to pull it; more able-bodied workers would help quite a lot.

Three reasons for favoring immigration might be called moral.

First, in my experience immigrants are more likely to be hard working and family oriented than citizens who were born here. This is true of Hispanic immigrants and others, and at present it is true of both legal and illegal immigrants. I know there are cases of immigrants becoming leeches on our society, but in my observation the rest of us are much more likely to be leeches. I think our society is healthier because of immigrants' industry, their example of industry, and their commitment to family. More of these things is better.

Second, there are many places in the world where, for political reasons -- and because of poverty, famine, and other problems which themselves are inherently political -- it is very difficult to live and raise a family. Mexico is one of these and long has been; in many ways it is a failed state. When we Americans, through our proxies in Washington and in state capitals, are not systematically destroying our free market economy, as we have been doing lately, we can healthily absorb droves of refugees from less happy places every year, whether they aspire to citizenship or merely want to work for months or years. Given that we have the capacity to be a great humanitarian blessing to the world in this way, and given that the need exists in perpetuity, I believe we have a moral obligation to welcome the people of the world to (what's left of) our freedom.

Third, the habits, instincts, and disciplines of political and economic freedom are more difficult to achieve in a society than the government structures common to free societies, and the structures aren't worth much without that culture of freedom. Every immigrant from a more repressive society and tradition who comes to live and work in the United States for years, then returns to his or her native country (as some do), takes back to that country some of those precious habits, instincts, and disciplines. As a result, that country is better situated to gain, enjoy, and preserve freedom eventually -- and prosperity too. Among other things, this actually promotes world peace, because free nations tend not to make war against each other.

As far as I'm concerned, we ought to let into the country -- in a legal, orderly manner -- anyone who wishes to come to work, especially those who seek refuge from a more oppressive regime. It's perfectly fine with me if they stay as guest workers as long as they are willing and able to work, if they obey our laws. And if they wish to become citizens and stay forever, that's fine with me, too.

There might be some practical limits to how many new guest workers and citizens we could receive in a legal and orderly manner in a given year, and we might have to ease the incoming numbers down somewhat, if we find that they're coming a little faster than our (someday healthy) economy can create jobs for them. We may want to built some related metrics into our legislation from the beginning. But let's make sure we err on the side of favoring abundant immigration.

I'm well aware that our current immigration bureaucracy cannot handle its present load, which is far smaller than the load I've just proposed. We'll have to remake that bureaucracy and simplify its abstruse processes as much as we can, without undermining the necessary scrutiny of prospective and current immigrants. We may want to have the states administer the day-to-day workings of a large guest worker program, for example. They've more or less figured out the driver license thing, after all. Perhaps we should also consider privatizing many of the necessary functions.

We're past 1500 words already, so I'm putting off until later some major questions about economics and government budgets, as they relate to my very liberal preferences for legal immigration. (No, not that kind of "liberal"!) For the moment, I'll simply say this: If it makes sense, to minimize economic shock, let's start with a lower minimum wage for immigrants on a guest worker visa, and gradually raise it to (or near) our regular minimum wage. (A minimum wage is bad economics, but it's a fact of life for now.) Let's make sure these immigrants are part of our regular tax base. And let's require annual renewal of those guest worker visas, with a substantial annual fee.

Coming Next . . .

Next time, I'll address the question of what to do about the illegals who are already here. This will include more discussion of a guest worker program and, length permitting, attention to some of the economic and budgetary issues I mentioned.

Terminal, Parenthetical Metachatter

(I can't help it. I love big words.)

In case you're wondering, I haven't written the subsequent posts yet. I've tried to think through things fairly thoroughly and outline what is to come, before writing what I've already written, but the possibility exists that I'll run into something later which will invalidate something I've already written. Such is the adventure of publishing a thing serially, not to mention of keeping an open mind.

There's an even greater possibility that one or more of you will pose a question or point I haven't heard yet and force me to rethink some of what I've written. That said, I welcome, not fear, your input.

In any case, please stay tuned.

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