Legalizing Illegals

This article appeared in the HISPANIC Trends Magazine on January 1, 2006.

Momentum is growing in Washington to address America's brokenimmigration system. An estimated 11 million immigrants, themajority from Mexico and Central America, reside in the UnitedStates illegally, with the total number growing by 400,000 or moreannually. 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 supplyand demand: First, the American economy, which continues to createopportunities for lower-skilled workers in such importantindustries as tourism, restaurants, construction, retail,agriculture and service sectors. Indeed, the U.S. Labor Departmentestimates the U.S. economy will create demand for millions of netnew 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 tofill those jobs. Experience shows that enforcement alone withoutreform is doomed to fail. Since the federal government began itscrackdown on illegal immigration in the 1980s, spending on theBorder Patrol has increased 10-fold, and line-watch hourseight-fold. We've built fences miles into the desert. We've raidedfactories and chicken-processing plants from coast to coast in aneffort to enforce employer sanctions. Yet the immigration problemjust gets worse.

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

According to research conducted by the Cato Institute, a workercrossing the border illegally today is actually more likely to makeit across without being apprehended, more likely to stay here oncein and more likely to die in the attempt.

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

Since many illegal workers have been productively employed inthe United States for years, they should be allowed to remain inthe United States while they adjust their status. It is simplyimpractical and would be an economic and humanitarian disaster todeport 11 million people in a short period of time. Real reformwould also dramatically cut the flow of illegal workers. Legalizedworkers 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 offsetadministrative costs and related state and local expenditures.

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

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

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