Focus on Employment, Not Citizenship, to Reform Immigration

Immigration reform, once the top priority in Washington coming out of the 2012 presidential election, has stalled. This is unfortunate because the current system is a shambles. Some 11 million people live in the U.S. illegally. But attempting to fence off the country is no answer. 

Immigration benefits the United States. Many immigrants are natural entrepreneurs. Well-educated foreign workers are inventive and productive. Expanded work forces increase economic specialization and business flexibility. 

Immigration may depress some wages in the short-term; however, the work force is not fixed. Immigration makes a more innovative and productive economy, with new and better jobs. 

Nevertheless, the public is skeptical of immigration. To move forward, Congress should separate employment from citizenship. Legislators should expand work visas for individuals. Immigration auctions or tariffs would be innovative alternatives. Congress also should regularize the status of those currently in America illegally by granting residence and employment permits. However, Congress should set aside debate over turning illegal aliens into citizens. In fact, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, asked: “Are there options that we should consider between the extremes of mass deportation and a pathway to citizenship?”

Some immigration opponents complain that this approach would reward illegal behavior. However, the undocumented broke the law to improve their lives and the lives of their families, not to hurt others. Their presence also benefits the rest of us. Moreover, most Americans won’t support rounding up millions of people who have become part of U.S. society. Additional employment controls and sanctions would undermine domestic liberties. 

Immigration supporters are also critical of this approach. A blogger harkened back to the slave era, writing that the immigrants’ “status would be akin to the freedmen who were denied citizenship under the notorious Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott.”  Cristina Jimenez of the organization United We Dream called the idea “un-American.” 

However, in Dred Scott the court ruled that people who had been kidnapped and brought to America were not citizens. In contrast, today’s undocumented came voluntarily without any expectation of becoming citizens. Moreover, there is nothing “un-American” about not allowing those who entered the country illegally to jump the citizenship queue. 

As I point out in my latest Forbes online column:

[F]or immigrants seeking economic opportunity—which typifies the undocumented—legal residency and employment are more important than political participation. With the former two they would enjoy most of the benefits of American society. Naturalization would result in some additional “rights,” but regularization even without citizenship would dramatically improve the status of today’s illegal immigrants.

Indeed, when the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act provided a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who entered the country before 1982, only 40 percent of eligibles subsequently became naturalized. Two-thirds of the 5.4 million immigrants eligible for citizenship have still not done so. 

Under this proposal, newly legalized residents who desire to become citizens could still apply for citizenship under existing rules. Yet critics of this idea worry about creating a permanent “underclass.” Actually, that’s the case today. Legalizing the undocumented and improving their economic opportunities would empower them. They would resemble expatriate workers around the world.

Congress also should address the issue of “birthright” citizenship.  Today everyone born in America, even babies born to non-citizens who are merely visiting the United States, become citizens under a provision of the 14th Amendment. The amendment was drafted to constitutionalize the citizenship of the freedmen after the Civil War, not set immigration policy. There is no policy reason to automatically grant citizenship to the children of foreigners in America legally but with no significant connection to the country—or to the children of those here illegally. 

A few years ago, when my former Cato colleague Will Wilkinson wrote of this idea (link here, though there seems to be a problem with the site), Mother Jones blogger Kevin Drum responded that changing citizenship rules would create “a large, permanent class of resentful noncitizens is something nobody should be pining for.” But kids would benefit along with their parents from legalizing their status.  Resentment is far more likely in response to impaired educational opportunities, poor job prospects, and arbitrary threats of deportation than to an inability to vote and run for office.

Americans would greatly benefit from expanded immigration. To spur reform, Congress should allow more people to live and work legally in America. But legislators should reconsider who should be welcomed as fellow citizens.