The Border Security Obsession

Immigration is mainly an economic phenomenon, but the politics surrounding reform are mired in border security talking points. The soon-to-be-voted-on Hoeven-Corker amendment to the immigration reform bill will double the size of border patrol and place an absurd array of technology and fencing on the southern border. The Hoeven-Corker amendment is a political necessity, but a policy absurdity.

Securing the border is largely a rhetorical excuse to oppose reforming the immigration system. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) said of the Hoeven-Corker amendment that, “I do not think this amendment is going to touch many of the objections that I spoke about.” The Hoeven-Corker amendment militarizes the border to an embarrassing degree–replacing the Statue of Liberty’s promise of liberty to all with a wall facing southward.   

How will this $5-billion-a-year security buildup be financed? The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates enormous fiscal gains from immigration reform–reducing deficits from between $700 billion and $1.2 trillion over the next 20 years. Spending large portions of those anticipated savings on more security will convince some Republicans to vote for the entire immigration bill, but it won’t solve the unlawful immigration problem going forward. Fixing the legal immigration system will. 

Allowing more legal low-skilled guest workers will channel would-be unlawful immigrants into the legal market. Immigrants won’t cross illegally if they can come in legally through a checkpoint. Shrinking the size of the unlawful immigrant population by channeling most of them into the legal system will help Border Patrol weed out the criminals, national security threats, and sick people from the vast majority of willing peaceful workers. History shows us the way. 

In the early 1950s unlawful immigration was a problem, but Border Patrol did not just punish the immigrants, it funneled them into the legal market. During that time there was a guest worker visa program called Bracero. After arresting unlawful immigrants, Border Patrol drove them down to the Southern border and immediately let them enroll in the Bracero program, allowing them to return to their jobs after taking a few steps over the border and coming back into the U.S. with lawful permission. 

Soon, would-be unlawful immigrants learned they could just enter legally–and they did. Unlawful immigration dropped by more than 90 percent in the following years. If there was a legal immigration option today, expanded to sectors of the economy besides just agriculture, immigrants would overwhelmingly make the same choice.

Today, the immigration enforcement infrastructure already exists to funnel would-be unlawful immigrants into the legal market. The only thing lacking is a functional guest worker visa program. The current immigration reform bill’s guest worker visa program is a complicated mess that is barely better than the current system.  

Allowing additional legal guest workers will accomplish more than spending $5 billion a year on border security.  It will channel peaceful people in the legal immigration system while leaving Border Patrol to deal with the real criminal and national security threats that remain.  Militarizing the border without improving the guest worker visa system risks a repeat of the 1986 Reagan amnesty.

The good portions of this immigration reform bill still outweigh the bad but we cannot afford too many more Hoeven-Corker amendments.