Commentary

A Game of Semantics

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times on May 27, 2007.
Rational discussion of the Senate immigration bill is being stifled and befuddled by a few misused words and phrases that generate irrational anger and very little understanding.

The simple dichotomy between legal and illegal immigrants, for example, ignores the 175 million foreigners who arrived in the United States in 2005 as legal nonimmigrants — tourists, business travelers, students and temporary workers. About 4.7 million people who came here to conduct business, without even counting the millions more Canadian and Mexican businessmen who generally need not fill out an arrival-departure record. Canadians who live near the border often shop in the United States because sales taxes are much lower here. There were 663,058 new foreign students who arrived in 2005, including a few spouses and children.

“Securing the borders” means dealing with all 175 million foreigners who arrive here each year — not merely a half-million additional illegal entrants.

About half of all illegal residents arrived here legally, but remained here illegally. Even the most severe bureaucratic and militarized restrictions on crossing the U.S.-Mexican border could affect no more than half the flow of illegal immigration.

Legal immigration means permanent residents — those who receive green cards. There were 1,122,373 new legal residents in 2005 and another 1,255,264 in 2006. About half as many, 604,280, became naturalized U.S. citizens in 2005.

Clearly, very few of the 175 million people admitted to the United States become permanent residents, and fewer still are (or want to be) “on a path to citizenship.” Discussions about criteria for getting a temporary work visa need not be confounded with who may or may not get a green card, much less with the few who may become citizens.

Acquiring legal resident status at present has little to do with eligibility for work and almost everything to do with having relatives here who are legal U.S. residents. The Immigration Act of 1990 set caps on U.S. legal immigration, aside from immediate family members of U.S. citizens (an exception that fostered Internet brides). The overall cap was almost entirely devoted to family members of legal residents, leaving only 140,000 slots for foreign employees who might hope to stay. As a result, most foreigners working in the United States are on temporary visas. They are, to use another hot-button phrase, “guest workers.”

In reality, 883,706 temporary workers and their family members came to the United States in 2005, often with no intention of staying long, much less changing their citizenship. Tens of thousands of American workers likewise went abroad to work for a few years, but we don’t call them emigrants or assume they are eager to surrender U.S. citizenship. Working in various countries is almost a rite of passage for managers in many multinational corporations.

As for illegal entrants, the Pew Hispanic Center figures there were about 500,000 per year from 2000 to 2005. The total still living in the United States last year was famously (but somewhat arbitrarily) estimated at 12 million. But the same source also estimated only 56 percent of the illegal residents were from Mexico (compared with about 30 percent from Asia), and 40 percent to 50 percent of those illegal residents arrived here legally, “mostly as tourists or business visitors.”

There are 19,173 people in federal prisons for serious immigration violations (smuggling aliens or counterfeiting credentials). There were 1.3 million apprehensions for illegal entry in 2005, and a quarter-million were deported.

Those figures are not nearly harsh enough to please some people. They use the word “amnesty” to mean any proposal that fails to imprison or deport all the 12 million men, women and children thought to live in the United States without having lined up in the proper multiyear queues (assuming queues were even available to those without relatives here).

Liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans make different excuses for leaving immigration policy just as irrational as it is — that is, so dependent on arbitrary political preferences and long waiting lines that wholesale evasion is inevitable. Liberals and immigration lawyers won’t budge an inch on leaving family unification as the ultimate criterion for legal residence, or on making permanent U.S. voters out of every temporary worker — so they argue we are better off with the status quo than we would be by making it any easier for any foreigners to work here without hiding in the underground economy.

A few conservatives bemoan the fact that most illegal immigrants are short of schooling. We are supposedly better off just keeping them illegal (though it isn’t put it that way) so they never qualify for Medicaid or food stamps. What both sides have in common is a pathological fear of change supported by a gaggle of misused words and a shortage of facts.

Alan Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute and a nationally syndicated columnist.