Although we blogged on immigration not long ago (see entry for March 6th), immigration reform is currently being extensively discussed by Congress, and President Bush proposed various immigration reforms. We decided to consider the subject once again.
I will defend three reforms. First, the United States can and should greatly increase the number of legal immigrants accepted, with most of the emphasis on skilled immigrants. Second, it is not politically possible to send back the millions of illegal immigrants that are here, but other steps might be taken with regard to their eligibility for various government programs. Third, if a feasible enforcement policy could be worked out, employers should be punished for hiring undocumented workers in order to reduce the incentives for many more illegal immigrants to come here.
The case for expanded legal immigration recognizes the great benefits this country has received from immigrants throughout our history. The unlimited immigration of the nineteenth century is no longer an attractive policy because of the artificial incentives to come created by various entitlement programs. Nevertheless, this relatively unpopulated nation can readily and productively absorb many more immigrants. Skilled immigrants in particular should receive high priority- they do not under present policies- because they add highly valued skills that are well paid in the above ground sector, and they contribute much more in taxes than they receive in government benefits from Medicaid, unemployment compensation, and other government programs. In addition, skilled immigrants commit little crime, they have law-abiding and generally high achieving children, and they supply various services that otherwise might be outsourced to countries like India and China. I would also like to admit legally some hardworking unskilled immigrants, and I will discuss this later.
Unfortunately, I do not see anything in the president's proposal to increase the number of skilled immigrants, perhaps because all the attention is now on illegal immigrants. But skilled individuals deserve a high priority. One approach is to expand greatly the number allowed to enter under temporary programs, such as the H-1B visa program mainly for high-tech workers. But programs for temporary admission are not attractive (for reasons discussed in my March 6th post), and a more desirable policy would provide permanent admission to many more skilled immigrants. More generous admission of these immigrants should be a fundamental part of any overhaul of the United States' immigration policy.
Although the exact number of illegal immigrants in this country is not known, estimates range from about five million persons to close to twelve million. Surely, it is not feasible politically to round most of these up and return them to where they came from. The recent immigrant demonstrations show that this could lead to riots and unrest that would be more destructive than helpful. Moreover, many of these immigrants are well integrated into American life, and it would make little economic sense, as well as be inhumane, to send them back, even if that were feasible. The call by some Republican to send most illegal immigrants back to where they came from seems more like political grandstanding rather than a serious proposal.
So I accept that the vast majority of illegal immigrants are here to stay for as long as they want to. The president's proposal essentially to give permanent residency to illegal immigrants who have jobs involves some face-saving because he wants to deny that he is in effect proposing to give amnesty to immigrants who are here illegally. Still, the proposal is basically a major step in the right direction, for it not only recognizes the impossibility of throwing out millions who are here illegally, but the proposal also makes a valuable distinction between those with and without jobs. That part of the proposal is consistent with the approach taken in the H-1B and other programs that gives preference to immigrants who have jobs.
If the president's proposed reforms were not to become simply another amnesty program-the previous one was in 1986- that would encourage further illegal immigration, a way must be found to discourage the number of illegal immigrants who want to come. The current policy of returning apprehended aliens is ineffective since the majority of those who are returned simply turn around and come again. Perhaps a wall along the border will help. I doubt if using the national guard to patrol borders (I do not like the use of national guards for that purpose) or many more border agents could greatly stem the tide, given the length of the border with Mexico, and the many persons who specialize in finding new ways to cross over.
Most Americans do not wish to give significant jail sentences to illegal aliens who are apprehended. For there is considerable, although not universal, sympathy for immigrants whose only crime is that they come to this country to seek much higher wages, better working conditions for themselves, and brighter futures for their children.
What then can be done? As I said in my March post, I favor reducing the benefits available to illegal immigrants, which means denying them access to most health, education, and other benefits. But I recognize that it is unlikely if that would be politically feasible or desirable in certain situations, such as for illegals who have school age children, or those who are ill. So I am not optimistic about the feasibility of doing much along these lines.
Clearly, it would help a lot if Mexico developed much faster. Its record during the past several years is pretty good, due mainly to the NAFTA Free Trade agreement, various reforms Mexico introduced to make its economy more flexible, and a booming world economy. Still, Mexico is unlikely to increase its progress sufficiently rapidly to greatly reduce the desire of many Mexicans to come to the United States in the forseeable future.
It would be desirable to increase significantly the number of unskilled persons accepted each year, along with the greater increase in skilled individuals accepted, although neither group should be eligible for entitlement benefits for several years. This policy would reduce the number of unskilled persons who want to come here illegally, but it would not eliminate the problem.
So is stemming further large-scale illegal immigration a hopeless task? Perhaps it is, which is why I titled my previous entry "The New American Dilemma: Illegal Immigration". But an approach that I dismissed in my March post may be worth exploring further. Although the 1986 immigration law barred employers from hiring illegal immigrants, it has not been much enforced because employers argued they were victims of forged social security cards, green cards, and other ID's that would certify employees were in this country legally. An identity card that is hard to duplicate and that would have to be checked by employers at a central clearing house before hiring someone would be the only really effective method of reducing forgery to minor levels. That would have to be combined with sizeable monetary fines for employers who hired employees without the required documentation. These fines should rise with the number of illegal aliens hired, and with whether an employer was a repeat offender.
Even if such an identity and punishment system were introduced and were effective, some illegal immigrants would come here to work for households and at other underground activities. But identity cards would greatly cut back the number of illegal immigrants who would come. That is all any policy toward illegal immigrants can hope to achieve.