The election has provoked a remarkable about-face by Republican leaders and conservative commentators, who apparently believe or pretend to believe that Romney lost the election because the harsh stand of the party on illegal immigration offended Hispanic voters. These leaders and commentators describe Hispanics as natural Republicans because almost all of them are Catholic and they tend to support conservative values on matters like abortion and homosexuality, and also because immigrants are naturally entrepreneurial and willing to work hard to get ahead in their new country.
The exit polls do not support the proposition that Catholics are strongly influenced in voting for President by the Republican embrace of conservative family values. Nor have previous waves of immigrants, such as the Irish, Italians, and Jews, tended to vote Republican, although this will often change as their descendants become affluent or at least thoroughly Americanized. Asian-Americans, despite their economic success, strongly favored Obama in the election. Hispanics are on the whole rather poor, and thus seem a natural Democratic rather than Republican constituency. Yet undoubtedly Republicans would garner more Hispanic votes with the friendlier attitude toward immigrants that George W. Bush, for example, displayed during his Presidency.
But whatever the Republican hopes and motives, the Republican about-face on illegal immigration is welcome. There are believed to be about 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States, the vast majority Mexican. There is no question of deporting them. Nor apparently is it feasible to prevent further illegal immigration from Mexico (offsetting the illegal immigrants who return voluntarily to Mexico, as many do), owing to the length of the U.S.-Mexican border and the many crossing points. Apart from the enormous resources that would be expended in serious effort to deport the existing illegal immigrants and prevent further illegal immigration, illegal immigrants are a significant fraction of the American labor force (it is estimated that 8 million of them work, which is 5 percent of the labor force), and the nation can hardly afford to lose so many workers. Illegal immigrants receive some government benefits, but fewer than legal workers, and they tend to work very hard. (In California, the expression “he works like a Mexican” is used to describe someone who works harder than he should.) They fill many jobs, particularly in agriculture, that are unattractive to U.S. citizens. They are a productive part of the U.S. economy.
The current Administration has been energetic in seeking to deport illegal immigrants who are criminals (contrary to a widespread impression, it is not a crime to be an illegal immigrant as such, although of course it’s a ground for deportation). But the current Administration has, like its predecessors, left the other illegal immigrants pretty much alone. As a result the the millions of illegal immigrants live in a kind of limbo.
So what should be done? The standard answer is to provide a “path to citizenship.” The difficulty is in doing this without reverting to the policy of unrestricted immigration that prevailed in the United States until the 1920s, a policy that would not be feasible now, given the density of the U.S. population today and the enormous size of the world population (7 billion). If government makes it easy for an illegal immigrant to become a legal immigrant and thus a citizen, this amounts to a policy of de facto unrestricted immigration. If one amnesties the entire existing illegal immigrant population (excepting criminals), one encourages further illegal immigration because there will be an anticipation of future amnesties. Coupling an amnesty with an effective policy of preventing future illegal immigration would be optimal if that prevention were feasible, but apparently it isn’t.
The DREAM Act (not yet enacted, but the Administration has implemented a number of its provisions by executive order) seems an ingenious and realistic, though incomplete, compromise. It provides the “path to citizenship” to persons who are illegal immigrants by virtue of having been brought here as children by parents who were illegal immigrants. Illegals who having been brought here as children have grown up as Americans are indistinguishable from illegal immigrants’ children who having been born in the United States have been U.S. citizens since birth. If you are a Mexican couple with children and are thinking of immigrating illegally to the United States, the fact that your children can eventually become U.S. citizens is an inducement to immigrate, but only a modest inducement because the parents will not be allowed to become citizens.
The DREAM Act is incomplete because most illegal immigrants immigrated to the United States as adults rather than as children. So the question remains what to do about the adults’ status. One answer may be to allow them to become citizens, but to impose a penalty sufficient to reduce the flow of future illegal immigrants. Another may be to assist Mexico to raise the Mexican standard of living, since the rule of thumb is that when a nation’s per capita income reaches 40 percent of the American per capita income immigration to the United States from that nation will fall to a low level.