Tag: immigration

E-Verify and Common Sense

This weekend, New York Times op-ed columnist Ross Douthat wrote a piece full of common sense thinking about immigration control and the E-Verify federal background check system.

“Common sense”—or “what most people think”—is an interesting thing: When generations of direct experience accumulate, common sense becomes one of the soundest guides to action. Think of common law, its source deep in history, molded in tiny increments over hundreds of years. Common law rules against fraud, theft, and violence strike a brilliant balance between harm avoidance and freedom.

When most people lack first-hand knowledge of a topic, though, common sense can go quite wrong. Such is the case with ”common sense” in the immigration area, which is not a product of experience but collective surmise. Douthat, who has the unenviable task of leaping from issue to issue weekly, indulges such surmise and gets it wrong.

Take, for example, the premise that American workers lose when immigration rates are high: “Amnesty,” says Douthat, would “be folly (and a political nonstarter) in this economic climate, which has left Americans without high school diplomas (who tend to lose out from low-skilled immigration) facing a 15 percent unemployment rate.”

On the whole, American workers do not lose out in the face of immigration. To the extent some do, it is penny-wise and pound foolish to retard our economy (in which displaced workers participate) and overall well-being (which affects displaced workers, too) in the name of protecting status quo jobs for a small number of native-borns.

Full immigration reform that includes generous opportunities for new low-skill workers is not folly, whatever its political prospects may be.

But I want to focus on Douthat’s conclusion that E-Verify is the way forward for immigration control. He cites a study finding that Arizona’s adoption of an E-Verify mandate caused the non-citizen Hispanic population of Arizona to fall by roughly 92,000 persons, or 17 percent, over the 2008–2009 period, and concludes:

[M]aybe — just maybe — America’s immigration rate isn’t determined by forces beyond any lawmaker’s control. Maybe public policy can make a difference after all. Maybe we could have an immigration system that looked as if it were designed on purpose, not embraced in a fit of absence of mind.

Though tentative, his implication is that a national E-Verify mandate is the solution. Everything that came before was the product of fevered impulses.  Maybe E-Verify is the most practical solution. Douthat’s calm tone sounds like common sense.

Ah, but neither Douhtat or the authors of the study have thought that problem all the way through (and the study doesn’t claim to): The decline in Arizona was not produced simply by moving illegal immigrants from Arizona back to Mexico and Central America. They went to Washington state and other places in the United States that are less inhospitable to immigrants. A national E-Verify mandate would offer no similar refuge, and the move to underground (or “informal”) employment would occur in larger proportion than it did in Arizona.

The report also cautions that the honeymoon in Arizona may not hold:

[T]he initial effects of the legislation are unlikely to persist if actors in the labor market learn that there are no consequences from violating these laws. Hence, for long-term effectiveness, policymakers should also consider the role of employer sanctions, which have not played a large role in Arizona’s results so far. However, policymakers must weigh the sought-after drop in unauthorized employment against the costs associated with shifting workers into informal employment.

That’s antiseptic language for: investigations of employers, raids on workers, heavy penalties on both, and growth in black markets and a criminal underground. “Balmy” is a way of describing the temperature potatoes pass through in a pressure cooker.

It’s hard, on analysis, to see Arizona’s experience being replicated or improved upon by an E-Verify mandate that’s national in scale without a great deal of discomfort and cost. I surveyed the demerits of electronic employment eligibility verification in “Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration.”

There is more not to love in the Douthat piece. Take a look at this shrug-o’-the-shoulders to the deep flaws in the concept of “internal enforcement” and E-Verify:

Arizona business interests called it unfair and draconian. (An employer’s business license is suspended for the first offense and revoked for the second.) Civil liberties groups argued that the E-Verify database’s error rate is unacceptably high, and that the law creates a presumptive bias against hiring Hispanics. If these arguments sound familiar, it’s because similar critiques are always leveled against any attempt to actually enforce America’s immigration laws. From the border to the workplace, immigration enforcement is invariably depicted as terribly harsh, hopelessly expensive and probably racist into the bargain.

We should disregard these problems because they’re familiar? With regard to E-Verify, they’re familiar because they are the natural consequence of dragooning the productive sector into enforcing maladjusted laws against free movement of people from a particular ethnic category to where their labor is most productive.

Problem-solving is welcome, and columnists like Ross Douthat have to at least point to a solution with regularity. But this effort, sounding in common sense, does not rise to the challenge. The solution is not even more enforcement of laws inimical to human freedom. The solution is reforming immigration laws to comport with … common sense!

The Consequences of Our War on Low-Skilled Immigrant Labor

Credit: Chiapas state government website

Authorities in Mexico intercepted two semi-trucks on Tuesday containing more than 500 migrants being smuggled across the border from Guatemala and presumably headed for the United States. An x-ray of one of the trucks that revealed the migrants struck me for its resemblance to those 18th century woodcarvings of slave ships crossing the Atlantic.

That analogy shouldn’t be taken too far, of course. According to the news reports, the migrants voluntarily paid $7,000 each for the chance to be smuggled into the United States. But like the slave ships, the conditions in the trucks were horrific, putting the lives of the men, women and some children in real danger.

People across the spectrum will try to make hay from this, but to me it argues that the status quo is unacceptable. No respectable party is in favor of illegal immigration. The real debate is over how to reduce it and all the underground pathologies that accompany it.

We can continue to ramp up border and interior enforcement, as we have relentlessly for more than a decade, driving low-skilled migrants further underground while driving smuggling fees higher and higher. Or we can expand opportunities for legal entry into the United States, and by doing so shrink the underground network of smuggling and document fraud.

Like the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, real immigration reform would go a long way to eliminating the human bootlegging that was exposed in Mexico this week. A robust temporary worker program would allow foreign-born workers to enter the country in a safe, orderly, and legal way through established ports of entry. It would allow resources now going to smugglers to be collected as fees by our government and otherwise put to work in our economy. It would save the lives of hundreds of people who needlessly die each year trying to re-locate for a better job.

If Congress enacted the kind of immigration reform we have long advocated in my department at Cato, our economy would be stronger and the human smuggling networks a lot less busy.

Responding to Critics of Immigration Reform

President Obama is making his first visit to the U.S.-Mexican border today to deliver a speech in El Paso, Texas, on the need to reform America’s immigration laws. I’ll be eagerly awaiting the president’s plan, but in the meantime, the Cato Institute has released a new study this week that examines the major objections to comprehensive immigration reform.

Titled “Answering the Critics of Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” and authored by Cato adjunct scholar Stuart Anderson, the new study draws on the latest research to address five common objections to expanding opportunities for legal immigration. The issues addressed in the study include the effect of immigration reform on government spending, welfare use, culture and language, unemployment, and incentives for illegal immigration.

After carefully weighing all those concerns, the study concludes that the arguments continue to weigh heavily in favor of expanding legal immigration as the best way to reduce illegal immigration. Here is the study’s conclusion:

The status quo is not acceptable. There is no evidence that continuing—or expanding—the current “enforcement-only” policies on immigration will be successful. The best approach is to harness the power of the market to allow workers to fill jobs legally, rather than to rely on human smuggling operations for workers to enter the United States. Addressing the situation of those now in the country illegally will achieve both humanitarian and economic objectives, including raising the wages of those now working as illegal immigrants. The primary arguments employed against comprehensive immigration reform do not stand up to a review of recent history and predictable social and economic behavior.

Here is the short-form Cato blueprint for immigration reform, and here is the long-form version (PDF).

Will Republicans Come to Grips With Immigration?

Today POLITICO Arena asks:

Given President Obama’s speech today in El Paso, Texas, is immigration a winning issue for Democrats?

My response:

Immigration will be a winning issue for Democrats only if Republicans allow it, which they’re quite capable of doing. Where’s the anti-immigrant part of the Republican base going to go — to the Democrats? Hardly. With so much else at stake, will they sit out the 2012 elections, over this one issue? Please.

If Republicans play it right, this can be a winner. No one seriously believes that the estimated 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, most working, can or should be sent back to their countries of origin. So the main issues are paving the way to legalization, better securing the borders, and providing for a rational guest worker program. If Republicans got behind a package like that, immigration would cease to be a Democratic issue. This isn’t rocket science.

Arizona Immigration Decision Underlines Need for Fundamental Reform

The legal battle over SB 1070 is far from over, so neither side should cheer or despair. The upshot of the Ninth Circuit’s splintered and highly technical opinion is merely that the district court did not abuse its discretion in enjoining four provisions. The court could not and did not rule on the legislation’s ultimate constitutionality and, of course, SB 1070’s remaining provisions—the ten that weren’t challenged and the two on which Judge Bolton rejected the government’s argument—remain in effect.

But the legal machinations are only half the story. While I personally think that all or almost all of the Arizona law is constitutional, at least as written (abuses in application are always possible), it’s bad policy because it harms the state’s economy and misallocates law enforcement resources. But I also understand the frustration of many state governments, whose citizens are demanding relief from a broken immigration system that Congress has repeatedly failed to fix. Whether it’s stronger enforcement (Arizona) or liberalizing work permits (Utah), states should not be forced into the position of having to enact their own piecemeal immigration solutions while living within a system where the regulation of immigration is a federal responsibility. Congress has dropped the ball in not passing comprehensive immigration reform, despite facing a system that doesn’t work for anyone: not big business or small business, not rich Americans or poor ones, not skilled would-be immigrants or unskilled.

The federalism our Constitution establishes sometimes demands that the federal government act on certain issues. This is such a time and immigration is such an issue.

Allow More Latin American Students into the U.S.

As expected, President Obama’s speech on Latin America, given on Monday in Santiago, Chile, was full of rhetoric but short of substance. He briefly mentioned the willingness of his administration to “move forward” with the pending free trade agreements with Colombia and Panama, but didn’t say when he’s submitting them for a vote in Congress. He recognized (again) that drug consumption in the U.S. is fueling drug violence in Mexico and Central America, but stayed away from saying how his more-of-the-same policies will change anything.

Obama’s only tangible pledge was the announcement that his administration will work to increase the number of Latin American students in the U.S. to 100,000. This is laudable, but still unambitious. According to the Institute of International Education (IIE), last year there were already over 65,000 Latin Americans studying in this country. This poorly compares to other regions and countries. For example, South Korea alone has over 72,000 students in the U.S. Increasing the number of Latin Americans studying here to 100,000 would still leave the region behind China (127,628) and India (104,897). These countries each may have populations greater than that of Latin America, but, as President Obama said yesterday, Latin America and the U.S. share a common history, heritage and values. One would thus expect that the U.S. would be especially open to students from the region.

Of course, the number of Latin Americans studying here doesn’t depend exclusively on the United States. It depends mostly on the ability of people in the region to afford pursuing a degree in a U.S. college or university. However, it’s telling that, despite Latin America’s growing incomes, fewer people from the region come to the United States to study than a decade ago. The IIE shows that in the school year 2001/02 there were over 68,000 Latin Americans studying in the U.S. After 9/11, new visa requirements had a negative impact on the ability of Latino students to come to the United States.

President Obama should be commended for looking at an area where the U.S. can help Latin America. Still, the U.S. should be more welcoming to students from south of the border. The region is at an important stage in its road towards economic development, and having more U.S. educated Latin Americans can have a significant impact on the region’s fortunes. Just ask Chile’s Chicago Boys, for example.

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