Tag: border security

The Border Security Obsession

Immigration is mainly an economic phenomenon, but the politics surrounding reform are mired in border security talking points. The soon-to-be-voted-on Hoeven-Corker amendment to the immigration reform bill will double the size of border patrol and place an absurd array of technology and fencing on the southern border. The Hoeven-Corker amendment is a political necessity, but a policy absurdity.

Securing the border is largely a rhetorical excuse to oppose reforming the immigration system. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said of the Hoeven-Corker amendment that, “I do not think this amendment is going to touch many of the objections that I spoke about.” The Hoeven-Corker amendment militarizes the border to an embarrassing degree–replacing the Statue of Liberty’s promise of liberty to all with a wall facing southward.   

How will this $5-billion-a-year security buildup be financed? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates enormous fiscal gains from immigration reform–reducing deficits from between $700 billion and $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years. Spending large portions of those anticipated savings on more security will convince some Republicans to vote for the entire immigration bill, but it won’t solve the unlawful immigration problem going forward. Fixing the legal immigration system will. 

Allowing more legal low-skilled guest workers will channel would-be unlawful immigrants into the legal market. Immigrants won’t cross illegally if they can come in legally through a checkpoint. Shrinking the size of the unlawful immigrant population by channeling most of them into the legal system will help Border Patrol weed out the criminals, national security threats, and sick people from the vast majority of willing peaceful workers. History shows us the way. 

In the early 1950s unlawful immigration was a problem, but Border Patrol did not just punish the immigrants, it funneled them into the legal market. During that time there was a guest worker visa program called Bracero. After arresting unlawful immigrants, Border Patrol drove them down to the Southern border and immediately let them enroll in the Bracero program, allowing them to return to their jobs after taking a few steps over the border and coming back into the U.S. with lawful permission. 

Soon, would-be unlawful immigrants learned they could just enter legally–and they did. Unlawful immigration dropped by more than 90 percent in the following years. If there was a legal immigration option today, expanded to sectors of the economy besides just agriculture, immigrants would overwhelmingly make the same choice.

Today, the immigration enforcement infrastructure already exists to funnel would-be unlawful immigrants into the legal market. The only thing lacking is a functional guest worker visa program. The current immigration reform bill’s guest worker visa program is a complicated mess that is barely better than the current system.  

Allowing additional legal guest workers will accomplish more than spending $5 billion a year on border security.  It will channel peaceful people in the legal immigration system while leaving Border Patrol to deal with the real criminal and national security threats that remain.  Militarizing the border without improving the guest worker visa system risks a repeat of the 1986 Reagan amnesty.

The good portions of this immigration reform bill still outweigh the bad but we cannot afford too many more Hoeven-Corker amendments.

Senate Moving Forward with Immigration Reform Bill

Yesterday, senators voted to proceed with debating the immigration reform bill on the floor of the Senate. The Gang of Eight’s bill was amended numerous times in the Judiciary Committee but now it will face input and criticism from the rest of the Senate. There are four big areas of the legislation to watch for amendments and criticisms:

Welfare

Numerous amendments will be introduced to further block non-citizen access to the welfare state. Cato colleagues and I have done a lot of work on this issue, including a forthcoming policy analysis, that has provided some of the intellectual ammunition demonstrating the viability of building a wall around the welfare state while increasing lawful immigration.

Border Security

Senators like John Cornyn (R-TX) are deeply worried that the current bill does not provide enough border security. The current bill adds billions of dollars to an enforcement system that has grown along with the rest of the government over the last few decades. The best way to limit unlawful immigration is to increase legal immigration opportunities, such as temporary guest worker visas and other broader measures. Senator Cornyn’s border security amendment will be crucial for the bill’s political success but will not much affect the policy outcome of the legislation—except to make it more expensive.

E-Verify

With scandals about government invasions of privacy, one would think a national electronic employment eligibility system like E-Verify would raise opposition.  Designed to weed unlawful immigrants out of the work force, the system is fraught with problems and raises numerous privacy concerns that my colleague Jim Harper has explored here.  Given how internal enforcement has almost zero deterrent effect on unlawful immigration, it’s a mystery why so many so-called limited government conservatives support it in the first place.

Legal Immigration 

The guest worker provisions of the bill are too regulated, too restricted, and too limited for workers of every skill category.  Applied retroactively, the proposed guest worker visa system would not be big enough to channel most unlawful workers who came in previous years into the legal market.  Regardless, the immigration reform bill is a step in the right direction for guest workers—albeit a small one.

There are other important policy and political issues going forward, from controversy over the net fiscal cost of immigration reform to the tremendous economic benefits of increasing the number of productive people, but these are the big ones to follow for libertarians and fellow travelers.

The Good and Bad of the Immigration Reform Blueprint

Today, the so-called Gang of Eight senators revealed a blueprint for an immigration reform bill. Details in the actual legislation will matter a great deal but these are initial impressions based on the blueprint. The good and the bad.

Good:

  • Earned legalization for non-criminal unauthorized immigrants. After paying fines, back taxes, undergoing a criminal background check, and other firm penalties, unauthorized immigrants will be able to stay in the United States and eventually earn a green card. This will increase their wages over several years much faster than if they remained unauthorized. 
  • DREAMers will not face the same penalties as unauthorized immigrants who intentionally broke U.S. immigration laws, which is a positive step.
  • Legalization for unauthorized immigrant workers in the agricultural industry will be fast-tracked. This is especially important because the majority of farm workers in most states are unauthorized immigrants.
  • Removing some regulatory barriers and increasing quotas for highly skilled immigrants. This will likely include an increase in the number of employment based green cards and removing the per-country quotas that produce wait times for Indian, Chinese, Mexican, and Filipino workers. Currently, numerous firms and immigrants are dissuaded from even trying to obtain employment based green cards because of the enormous wait times.

Bad:

  • Increases the amount of resources spent on border security. The size of the border patrol is double of what it was in 2004. The number of border patrol agents is seven times greater than what it was in the 1980s with about nine times as many on the southern border. More technology and aerial drones on the border will be wasteful and not produce results.
  • Strong employment verification system like E-Verify. As I wrote here, here, and here, E-Verify is an intrusive big government workplace identification system that does not even root out unauthorized immigrants. In Arizona, which has had mandatory E-Verify since 2008, many unauthorized immigrants have moved deeper into the black market, some industries fire numerous unauthorized workers but don’t hire natives to fill the spots, and the business formation rate dropped because the penalties for intentionally or knowingly hiring unauthorized workers are so draconian.
  • Increases regulations for guest worker visas. Current guest worker visas for agricultural workers are so overregulated that they are barely used. Adding more regulations will only make the visas more unusable and incentivize American farmers and employers to hire unauthorized workers.

A viable guest worker program will increase economic growth in the United States. Guest worker visas are not as good as green cards for lower-skilled workers, but they are the only viable option at this moment. The devil is in the details but this blueprint does not provide for enough future low-skilled immigration.     

Can You Spot the Difference?

The Republican National Platform on the War on Drugs in Latin America:

“The war on drugs and the war on terror have become a single enterprise. We salute our allies in this fight, especially the people of Mexico and Colombia. We propose a unified effort on crime and terrorism to coordinate intelligence and enforcement among our regional allies, as well as military-to-military training and intelligence sharing with Mexico, whose people are bearing the brunt of the drug cartels’ savage assault.”

The Democratic National Platform on the War on Drugs in Latin America:

“We have strengthened cooperation with Mexico, Colombia, and throughout Central America to combat narco- traffickers and criminal gangs that threaten their citizens and ours. We will also work to disrupt organized crime networks seeking to use the Caribbean to smuggle drugs into our country. As we collectively confront these challenges, we will continue to support the region’s security forces, border security, and police with the equipment, training, and technologies they need to keep their communities safe. We will improve coordination and share more information so that those who traffic in drugs and in human beings have fewer places to hide. And we will continue to put unprecedented pressure on cartel finances, including in the United States.”

I can’t. It appears both the Republicans and the Democrats will seek to maintain the status quo in the war on drugs. They agree that if we double-down and refocus our efforts, perhaps we can help Mexico make a small dent in the violence engulfing their country.

My colleague Ted Galen Carpenter has a piece today in the Huffington Post on how Obama and Romney are foolishly ignoring the issue and avoiding a serious debate about the war on drugs. While the violence in Mexico becomes a greater threat to U.S. national security, the candidates seem content to maintain the same failed policy that has seen 57,000 Mexicans perish.

Border Security, the War on Drugs, and the 2012 GOP Presidential Race

The issue of border security has made its way into the 2012 GOP presidential race and candidates are jockeying to separate themselves from the pack. The topic garnered some attention at the Republican national security debate on November 22. An Associated Press story today examines the candidate’s platforms on the topic and as the title implies, rightly concludes securing the border is impossible. I am quoted in the article and make exactly that point:

Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich have promised to complete a nearly 1,950-mile fence. Michele Bachmann wants a double fence. Ron Paul pledges to secure the nation’s southern border by any means necessary, and Rick Perry says he can secure it without a fence — and do so within a year of taking office as president.

But a border that is sealed off to all illegal immigrants and drugs flowing north is a promise none of them could keep.

“Securing the border is a wonderful slogan, but that’s pretty much all it is,” said Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow at the libertarian Cato Institute. “Even to come close would require measures that would make legal commerce with Mexico impossible. That’s an enormous price for what would still be a very leaky system.”

The bottom line is the border is simply too big to control. Attempting to fully police the border must pass a simple cost-benefit analysis, and it is not clear that our current policy passes that test. And yet, the candidates all agree securing the border is necessary to combat terrorism, illegal immigration, and drug violence stemming from Mexico.

The candidates have little reason to reexamine that assumption. Not only is it politically advantageous to call for securing the border, but it is a convenient one-size-fits-all solution to those three broader policy issues. They have calculated that this is what voters want to hear.

But it is an illusory solution. Laws protecting the border must exist and be enforced, but it is not clear that this alone, even if done more effectively or efficiently, will prevent terrorists or illegal immigrants from entering the United States. And the “securing the border” panacea certainly will not end the flow of drugs into the United States.

Curiously, while the GOP candidates all express worries about terrorism and illegal immigration, the subject of the war on drugs has hardly been discussed.  Although drug violence in Mexico is the only major security problem the Untied States faces on any of its borders, the issue has not produced serious consideration thus far.  Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX) has been the only candidate to offer a thoughtful, consistent approach the issue, calling for an end to the failed policy.

The candidates should be pressured to answer why Washington continues to spend billions of dollars to wage the war on drugs each year with little to show for it. The power of the drug cartels has reached the point that the Mexican government no longer controls some areas of the country. And there are worrying signs that the violence is beginning to bleed across the border into the United States.

Our prohibitionist efforts have failed and a new policy is needed. Only by removing the lucrative black-market drug trade and thus effectively defunding the Mexican drug cartels can we begin to end the violence and illegal activity that plagues Mexico and the southern U.S. border region.

That is the substantive discussion that should be taking place in the GOP debates, rather than the posturing and repeated faux policy prescriptions to secure the border.

‘Border Enforcement’ Bill Driven by Election-Year Politics

A $600-million bill to enhance border enforcement has hit a temporary snag in the Senate, but it is almost inevitable, with an election only a few months away, that Congress and the president will spend yet more money trying to enforce our unworkable immigration laws.

“Getting control of the border” is the buzz phrase of the day for politicians in both parties, from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. Never mind that apprehensions are down sharply along our Southwest border with Mexico, mostly I suspect because of the lack of robust job creation in the unstimulated Obama economy.

Meanwhile, since the early 1990s, spending on border enforcement has increased more than 700 percent, and the number of agents along the border has increased five-fold, from 3,500 to more than 17.000. (See pages 3-4 of a January 2010 report from the Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center.) Yet the population of illegal immigrants in America tripled during that period. If this were a federal education program, conservatives would rightly accuse the big spenders of merely throwing more money at a problem without result.

To pay for this politically driven expenditure, Congress plans to nearly double fees charged for H1-B and L visas used by foreign high-tech firms to staff their operations in the United States. The increased visa tax will fall especially hard on companies such as the Indian high-tech leaders Wipro, Infosys, and Tata.

This all has the ring of election-year populism. Congress pretends to move us closer to solving the problem of illegal immigrants entering from Latin America by raising barriers to skilled professionals coming to the United States from India and elsewhere to help us maintain our edge in competitive global technology markets.