Commentary

Immigration: Beyond the Barbed Wire

By Daniel Griswold
This article appeared on Reason.com, December 3, 2004.

At the end of the recent APEC summit in Santiago, Chile, President Bush made it clear he plans to spend a chunk of the “political capital” he accumulated on Election Day to persuade Congress to enact real immigration reform. This was a shrewd calculation, for Bush made immigration reform a priority in both his campaign and his first administration. His re-election provides a mandate to push ahead with changes that will help the many people who want to work in the United States and, if history is any guide, alleviate the very real problem of illegal immigration.

Back in January, at some political risk, the president called on Congress to reform America’s dysfunctional immigration system. Specifically, the president proposed a temporary worker visa for foreign-born workers who want to fill jobs that Americans typically shun, and for the legalization of millions of peaceful, hardworking but undocumented immigrants already here. The president re-affirmed his support during the presidential debates.

The proposal was not just a political ploy to win Hispanic votes. Since his days as governor of Texas, Bush has praised the economic and social contributions of immigrants from Mexico. Of course, politics played a part. Immigration reform is popular with Hispanics, a rapidly growing segment of the population that has become America’s largest minority group. While Hispanics tend to vote for Democrats, savvy Republicans such as Karl Rove have long realized that Republicans need to attract Hispanic voters if they are to remain competitive in national elections.

Conservative opponents of immigration see danger rather than opportunity in the Hispanic vote. For years they’ve warned that millions of new Hispanic immigrants will inevitably turn into loyal Democratic voters, relegating the party of Reagan to permanent minority status. For much of 2004, they dismissed the president’s immigration initiative as a flop with Hispanics that would only alienate the president’s base of support.

Once again, the restrictionists have been proven wrong. There is no evidence that President Bush paid a political price for his support for a more compassionate and just immigration system. His conservative base came out in force to support him, while the evidence mounts that immigration reform helped Bush with Hispanics. As a post-election news story in the Wall Street Journal concluded, “His longstanding appeals to Hispanics, on issues such as immigration, helped him carry 42 percent of their votes nationally — compared with 35 percent in 2000 — and a majority in Florida. That helped him achieve a comfortable victory in the critical battleground state.”

The president’s strong performance in other Hispanic-rich states such as Arizona, Nevada, Texas, and New Mexico indicate that he did at least as well with Hispanics as in 2000. Just about every other political analyst outside the restrictionist camp agrees.

In this case, what is good politics for Bush and the Republicans is also good policy. Our immigration laws desperately need reform. Today an estimated 9 million people are living in the United States illegally, with the number growing by an estimated net 350,000 a year.

Simply throwing more money and manpower at the problem hasn’t worked. Since the early 1990s, we’ve quintupled spending and tripled personnel at the Mexican border. We’ve built three-tiered walls for 60 miles into the desert. We’ve imposed sanctions on employers for the first time in U.S. history. We’ve raided discount stores and chicken processing plants in a futile attempt to repeal the laws of supply and demand.

One unintended consequence has been a deadly diversion of migration from a few urban entry points to more sparsely populated regions such as the Arizona border. Since 1998, more than 2,000 people have died of dehydration and suffocation while trying to cross the border. That’s too high a price to pay for seeking a better job.

The reason for the failure is simple. Our existing immigration system is out of step with the realities of American life. Our economy continues to produce opportunities for low-skilled workers in important sectors of our economy such as retail, services, construction, and tourism. Meanwhile, the pool of Americans willing and happy to fill those jobs continues to shrink as the average American worker grows older and becomes better educated. Yet our immigration system has no legal channel for workers from Mexico and other countries to come to the United States even temporarily to fill those jobs. The result is widespread illegal immigration.

Opponents of immigration demand more of the same failed policies: more walls and barbed wire, entire divisions of troops at the border, the massive deportation of undocumented workers at great economic and human cost. President Bush’s approach, in contrast, would replace an unsafe, disorderly, and illegal flow of immigrants with one that is safe, orderly, and legal.

In the early 1950s, rising illegal immigration from Mexico confronted us with a similar policy choice. The response then was to dramatically increase temporary worker visas under the Bracero program; the result was an equally dramatic decline in illegal immigration.

Legalization would improve the lot of millions of workers. Newly legalized workers would possess more bargaining power in the marketplace because they could more easily change jobs to improve their pay and working conditions. They would be more likely to qualify for private health insurance and to invest in their language and job skills.

Legalization would not equal “amnesty.” Under the president’s plan, legalized workers would not get automatic citizenship or even permanent residency. They would receive only a temporary visa renewable for a limited time. They would have to pay a fine for having lived here illegally that would not be chump change for low-skilled workers. They would have to get in line with everybody else to apply for permanent status under existing law.

Legalization would also enhance our national security. It would begin to drain the swamp of human smuggling and document fraud that facilitates illegal immigration. It would bring millions of people out of the shadows so we would know who they are. It would free resources for the war on terrorism. That’s why Tom Ridge, out-going secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, expressed support for the president’s proposal during a recent visit to Mexico.

Real immigration reform would be good policy and good politics. When his second term begins in January, President Bush should work with congressional leaders of both parties to make it a reality.

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