Commentary

America Needs Real Immigration Reform

By Daniel Griswold
May 18, 2006

As Congress settles in after its Easter recess, a top priority for the Senate should be to pick up the pieces from its failed attempt to reshape America’s immigration laws in a way that secures our borders, reduces illegal immigration, and serves our economic needs.

Just before the recess, the Senate seemed on the verge of a workable compromise. A bipartisan majority of the Senate was poised to approve comprehensive immigration reform, including a new temporary worker visa and legalization of millions of undocumented workers already living here. In contrast to a bill that passed the House in December, the emerging Senate bill would have recognized that immigration enforcement without reform is doomed to failure.

Any immigration reform worthy of the name must reflect the underlying reality that the American economy continues to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs each year for low-skilled workers. Those jobs are being created in retail sales, food preparation, cleaning and janitorial services, for retails salespersons, agriculture, construction, and landscaping and grounds-keeping.

Meanwhile, the supply of Americans willing and happy to fill those same jobs continues to shrink. We are getting older and more educated as a nation.

The median age of an American in the workforce will reach 41.6 by 2012, the highest in American history. And the share of adult native-born Americans in the workforce without a high school diploma, the very workers who are most likely to fill those jobs, has dropped from more than 50 percent in the early 1960s to below 10 percent today.

Where are the lines of Americans wanting to pick lettuce all day under a hot sun or to scrub floors and toilets all night at discount stores? That’s honorable work, but there just aren’t enough of us anymore to fill the jobs being created.

Illegal immigration continues to grow because our immigration law has no legal channel for a peaceful, hardworking immigrant from Mexico or another country to enter the United States legally to fill those jobs even temporarily. The result is large scale illegal immigration.

Today, 12 million people live in the United States illegally, with the number growing by half a million or more a year. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, one in 20 workers is undocumented, one in eight in food preparation, one in seven in construction, one in six in cleaning, one in four in farm work, dry-walling and roofing. Large sectors of our economy would be crippled and millions of American families would see their real wages fall if those workers were removed from our economy.

In December, the House voted for an enforcement-only bill that contained no provisions for legalizing more low-skilled workers. The House bill was built upon wishful thinking. For 20 years, we have tried enforcing existing law, but the problem of illegal immigration has only gotten worse.

A 10-fold increase in border patrol spending, three-tiered walls, and raids on hundreds of U.S. workplaces have not put a dent in the growth of illegal immigrants. In fact, our enforcement-only efforts have only pushed the flow of humanity further into remote regions of the border. Our policy has had three perverse consequences:

The House bill ignored the failed and tragic history of our enforcement-only efforts. It would authorize more than $2 billion to build a 700-mile fence along the border with Mexico (also our second largest trading partner). It would declare millions of janitors, dry-wallers, gardeners, and retail clerks to be “aggravated felons,” and potentially ensnare ordinary American citizens who are only being good neighbors.

If Congress hopes to reduce illegal immigration, secure our borders, and strengthen our economy, the House and Senate should pass comprehensive immigration reform, including legalization of immigrant workers whose only desire is to earn an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.

Daniel Griswold is director of the Cato Institute Center for Trade Policy Studies.