Commentary

Legalizing Illegals

Momentum is growing in Washington to address America’s broken immigration system. An estimated 11 million immigrants, the majority from Mexico and Central America, reside in the United States illegally, with the total number growing by 400,000 or more annually. Now Congress must choose: Reform the immigration system, or redouble the failed “enforcement only” policies of the past. Driving illegal immigration are two fundamental forces of supply and demand: First, the American economy, which continues to create opportunities for lower-skilled workers in such important industries as tourism, restaurants, construction, retail, agriculture and service sectors. Indeed, the U.S. Labor Department estimates the U.S. economy will create demand for millions of net new jobs in the next decade for lower-skilled workers.

Yet our immigration system offers no legal channel for peaceful, hardworking individuals to enter our country even temporarily to fill those jobs. Experience shows that enforcement alone without reform is doomed to fail. Since the federal government began its crackdown on illegal immigration in the 1980s, spending on the Border Patrol has increased 10-fold, and line-watch hours eight-fold. We’ve built fences miles into the desert. We’ve raided factories and chicken-processing plants from coast to coast in an effort to enforce employer sanctions. Yet the immigration problem just gets worse.

Unfortunately, our current policy has yielded perverse and deadly consequences. Past operations to stop immigration through urban areas such as San Diego and El Paso have only diverted the flow of people into more remote desert areas.

According to research conducted by the Cato Institute, a worker crossing the border illegally today is actually more likely to make it across without being apprehended, more likely to stay here once in and more likely to die in the attempt.

In the fiscal year just ended, a record 464 people died along the U.S.-Mexican border, with more than 3,500 deaths in the past decade. How many more will die before we fix a broken system? Practical immigration reform would allow workers to enter the United States in a safe, orderly, legal way through normal ports of entry, rather than sneaking across the desert at night. Real reform would also legalize the millions already here, not by offering amnesty, but through a registration process that would include a fine and only temporary status. If legalized workers wanted to stay permanently, they would need to apply separately through normal channels. Permanent residency visas should be expanded for those workers with longstanding family and work ties.

Since many illegal workers have been productively employed in the United States for years, they should be allowed to remain in the United States while they adjust their status. It is simply impractical and would be an economic and humanitarian disaster to deport 11 million people in a short period of time. Real reform would also dramatically cut the flow of illegal workers. Legalized workers would be more likely to qualify for health insurance, obtain auto insurance, and invest in their language and job skills. The increased fees and taxes they would pay could be used to offset administrative costs and related state and local expenditures.

U.S. companies could hire the workers they need to meet the needs of their customers and remain competitive in the marketplace. Meanwhile, legalized workers would enjoy full mobility and the protection of the law.

We would be more secure as a nation, because we would know who was entering the country and who was already here. We would drain the swamp of smuggling and document fraud.

We could focus our enforcement firepower on terrorists and other criminals rather than on men and women who only want to work and help their families.

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