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Tuesday, August 31, 2010
Immigration Reform, Part III: The Millions of Illegals Who Are Already Here

Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants now in the United States range from 10 million to at least 25 million. What are we to do with them? Wave our magic wand and make them citizens? Herd them into cattle cars and ship them across the border? I'm glad you asked. NEW: Listen to an audio podcast of this post.

This is the third installment in my ongoing attempt to have a calm and rational discussion of immigration policy. (Here are the first and second.) As before, I am attempting to sketch the broad outlines of a reasonable approach, knowing full well both that some devils lurk in the details, and that the current political climate doesn't encourage calm and rational discussion on this topic. I'm also keenly aware that my thoughts on the subject aren't terribly innovative. For the most part, they seem like common sense to me, and there's nothing particularly original about common sense.

I began with five postulates, two of which bear directly on today's topic: both sides must be willing to compromise, and we must be humane.

The Left wants to make more than ten million illegal immigrants into citizens, which is to say, grant them amnesty. This has been done before; it has not stemmed the tide of illegal immigration, nor would we expect it to, because it rewards illegal immigration.

The Right insists that there be no amnesty for the illegals. A frequent question is, Which part of illegal do you not understand? The Left finds the Right to be inhumane -- which has also happened before -- for wanting to use the law against the illegals.

My best political guess is that neither side is in a position to impose its will on the other in this matter. So it's time to compromise -- unless, that is, we would prefer to do nothing.


There are two senses in which we could do nothing. First, we could keep things as they are. Second, we could enforce the laws we have.

The status quo offends the Right, because at present we wink at, rather than enforcing, the law. Moreover, the illegal population imposes an unsustainable burden on local, state, and national government budgets, not to mention medical and insurance costs. It likely also puts a downward pressure on the price of labor.

The Left isn't satisfied with the status quo, either. Its more cynical demographic sees the illegals as undocumented voters and wants to, ahem, document them. And its more humane sector knows that illegals are largely defenseless against economic and physical exploitation, including an assortment of serious crimes.

Both sides have a point; so we'll reject the status quo.

As to enforcing existing law, the other way of doing nothing (at least legislatively), the prospects aren't pretty. Either the law itself or the bureaucracy it created and charged with enforcing the law is failing badly, or both. The bureaucracy's failure is comprehensive and practically legendary; the law's own failure may be less obvious. In any case, we need a law which we can enforce and want to enforce, and which will answer the present need and serve the future well. Our present law evidently fails on all four counts. So we'll reject the thought of changing nothing.

This brings us back to compromise.

A Middle Road

For the Right to agree to a compromise, the Left will have to swallow its yearning for amnesty. This seems reasonable to me, as long as amnesty just means amnesty. So if people are here illegally, we don't just forgive them and let them be citizens. "No automatic path to citizenship" is a phrase I've heard in some of the more reasonable discussion on the right.

However, some partisans will scream "Amnesty!" at anyone who suggests any approach more moderate than herding all the illegals into cattle cars and shipping them back to Mexico. We'll ignore them as best we can, since they're not using the word to mean what it means; they're just using it as a label or a weapon -- rather like another set of partisans uses the word racist these days on its opponents.

But we do need to talk about those cattle cars, at least as a symbol for the Right's insistence that we round up the all the illegals and ship them home. I doubt that we can spare the resources for mass deportations, but even if we can, there's a more basic consideration. If we're to reverse something on the basis of which millions -- the illegals -- have made major life decisions, we'd better be on solid moral and legal ground. But we're not. Our immigration laws have largely lost the moral and legal force of law, because we have deliberately, overtly, and systematically refused to enforce them for an extended period of time. I have argued this elsewhere. In my judgment, uprooting these many millions would therefore be unjust and inhumane.

I think siding with the rule of law in general is a very reasonable position, but here the Right must compromise on this point and back away from its rigid law-and-order stance somewhat. At the end of the day, an unenforced law is no more a law than an unenforceable law.

The outlines of our compromise on this point are beginning to emerge: It would let the illegals remain, rather than deporting them en masse, but it would not put them on an automatic path to citizenship.

Guest Workers

I'm essentially a law-and-order type myself. If we're going to let the illegals stay, it seems self-evident to me that we ought not let them stay illegally. We should allow them to become legal -- without putting them on a path to citizenship. If they wish to stay, we should require them to enroll in a well-organized, efficiently and competently admininstered guest worker program. After a certain date, we deport anyone we find who has not enrolled.

I am essentially proposing a two-track approach: the usual approach to citizenship on one hand, and a guest worker program on the other hand, which, I repeat, is not a path to citizenship. We can debate some other time how, when, and under what circumstances a guest worker might be allowed to switch to the citizenship track. Perhaps after a certain number of years in the guest program, a guest worker could go to the back of the citizenship line; perhaps this could only be done from outside the country, so that someone who has been here illegally (prior to our reform) must leave the country before returning on the citizenship track.

As I have suggested before, I'd be quite content if the guest worker program embraced as many people as want to come, as long as they are not already, and do not become, criminals, and assuming that we are able to administer the program in an orderly manner. In a previous installment I suggested that a guest worker visa be annually renewable, with a substantial fee.

More of a Solution than a Problem

This two-track solution is not completely different from our present approach, except that it would have to work, and it would have to be enforced. Combined with serious enforcement of the border and with a liberal attitude toward legal immigration (as I discussed in the previous installment), it answers many of our concerns about illegal immigration, rather than complicating them.

Rule of Law: It allows many workers into the country legally, while allowing us to make it difficult to enter and remain in the country illegally.

Humanity: Bringing present illegals above ground, with legal status, protects them from exploitation by employers and, significantly, empowers them to fight back against a host of crimes which illegals are reluctant to report. It also avoids wrenching millions of hard-working people out of their lives here and sending them back to the third-world tyrannies and anarchies from which they came.

Government Benefits: With legal status, these workers can be required to participate in the programs which pay for their medical care, education, and other benefits. A clear, well-defined two-track system might allow us to make sensible decisions about which benefits (and even which tax deductions and exemptions) will be available to guest workers, and which will only be available to citizens. (Perhaps Social Security would be in the latter list -- or we might want to allow them some Social Security benefits if they stay in the US, so that we have a few million more people paying into the system.) In truth, the argument that illegals manage to avoid paying taxes was never particularly sound, since they pay sales tax like the rest of us, pay property tax indirectly through rent, and generally don't make enough money that they would have to pay income tax in our twisted tax system.

Jobs: Business interests in both major parties, but especially the Republican Party, see illegal aliens as a valuable source of inexpensive labor, "doing jobs Americans won't do." Can we be honest here and concede that, while this may be partially true, it is incomplete? They may in fact be doing jobs Americans won't do for the same wage. Raise the price enough, and a lot of people will pick raspberries.

Bringing the illegals into legal status will allow them to keep working, but it will also force them to compete on fairer terms with American workers. The immigrants' wages will go up, since they can no longer be so easily exploited, and because minimum wage laws may apply. No doubt the costs of this will meet us at the grocery store. But I can't help thinking that moving millions of workers out of the shadows and into the legal economy will be a healthy thing in the long run.

Besides, we need willing workers. We can always use more workers. (Can you tell I'm not a union guy?) Let's let them work here for years and years, as long as they pay their taxes, renew their visas, keep the government informed of their current address -- as I'm required to do with my driver license and voter registration -- and don't get convicted of crimes. Maybe we should even allow them to retire here, if they've been here long enough, or if there is an active guest worker in the household. But if they want to be citizens, they'll have to get on the other track.

That's Enough For Today

I think this makes sense, and could work -- at least in a political climate where reasonable discussion and sensible compromise are possible. We're not there yet on this issue . . . but I hope we get there before we give up and apply yet another massive, inadequate, counterproductive legislative bandaid.

What do you think?

Next time, we'll fine-tune some things, talk about driver licenses and other identification, look at the minimum wage, and try to protect legal, non-voting guest workers from exploitation by voting citizen majorities. It's entirely possible that the phrase "flat tax" will also appear.

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