Commentary

Legalization is the Way

By Daniel Griswold
This article originally appeared in the Arizona Republic on October 24, 2004.
Our immigration laws desperately need reform. Nobody understands that more clearly than the people of Arizona.

Enforcing the existing law has failed. Since the 1980s, we’ve quintupled spending and tripled personnel at the Mexican border. We’ve built three-tiered walls for dozens of miles into the desert. We’ve imposed sanctions on employers for the first time in U.S. history. But the crackdown has failed to address the underlying realities of the U.S. labor market.

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. Every day thousands of illegal immigrants stream across the border, creating a headache for local property owners. Since 1998, more than 2,000 migrant men, women and children have died agonizing deaths from dehydration and suffocation. That’s too high a price to pay for seeking a better job.

The reason for the failure is simple. Our existing immigration laws are colliding with two powerful realities: The U.S. economy continues to produce opportunities for low-skilled workers in important sectors such as retail, services, construction, and tourism. Meanwhile, the pool of Americans happy to fill those jobs continues to shrink as we grow older and better educated. Yet our immigration system has no legal channel for peaceful, hard-working people to come to the United States even temporarily to fill those jobs. The result is widespread illegal immigration.

Longtime critics 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.

A more responsible approach would be to recognize reality by creating a temporary worker program and a path to legalization for the 9 million or more people already living here illegally. President George W. Bush endorsed that approach in January and again during the presidential debates. So did Sen. John Kerry. Three Arizona Republicans, Sen. John McCain and Reps. Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, have introduced legislation that would create just such a program.

Legalization 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 health insurance and to invest in language and job skills. The taxes and fees paid by newly legalized workers could help defray state and local costs for schooling and medical care. Because legalized workers would be able to visit their home countries more frequently, they would be less inclined to bring their families and more inclined to ultimately return home.

Legalization would not equal “amnesty.” 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 that would not be chump change for low-skilled workers. And 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 up law enforcement resources for the war on terrorism.

During a visit to Arizona earlier this year, the Homeland Security Department’s top official for border security, Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson, declared, “If we can pass some type of temporary-worker initiative as the president has suggested, it makes our job easier. Hopefully, whenever (workers) can go back and forth legally to their home they won’t have to come across illegally, and so it takes away a layer of traffic and you can concentrate on those people that really pose a risk to the United States and a security concern.”

Whoever wins in November, Congress and the president will have an opportunity in the new year to make America a more just, secure, and prosperous nation by enacting real immigration reform.

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