Real Reform Can Fix Immigration

October 2, 2007 • Commentary
This opinion piece is part of an Intelligence Squared debate that aired in October 2007.

We can’t close our eyes and hope illegal immigration goes away. Nor can we simply throw money at the same enforcement programs that have failed to fix the problem for more than 20 years. To solve this vexing problem, we need to reform our immigration system in a way that recognizes economic reality, guards our security and reduces the incentives for illegal immigration.

Low‐​skilled immigrants come here for the same reasons our forebears came: family ties and economic opportunity. Our economy continues to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs each year for lower‐​skilled workers in such important sectors as retail, hospitality, cleaning, landscaping, food preparation, light manufacturing and agriculture. At the same time the number of Americans who have traditionally filled such jobs — those without a high school diploma — continues to shrink.

Yet our immigration system offers no legal channel for peaceful, hardworking immigrants to enter the United States legally to fill even those jobs that fewer and fewer Americans want.

Efforts to enforce the current law have failed miserably. For the past two decades, we have dramatically increased spending on border enforcement, built walls for miles into the desert and raided restaurants and chicken‐​processing plants from coast to coast. Despite ramped‐​up enforcement, the number of people living in the United States without legal documents continues to grow.

Our border enforcement has only pushed migrants into more remote regions of the desert, driving up fees for smuggling and the number of deaths on the border. Since Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994, 4,500 people have died horrible deaths from heat or dehydration for the “crime” of wanting a better job.

The answer is not to merely spend more to enforce the existing, dysfunctional law, but to change it. Immigration reform must include an expanded visa program so that willing workers from Mexico and elsewhere can enter the United States legally to help us build a more vibrant economy, and reform must offer a path to legal status for workers already here.

Immigrants come to America to work, not to go on welfare or cause trouble. Studies show immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than their native‐​born counterparts. Department of Justice figures show that just 6 percent of federal and state inmates are noncitizens, less than their share of the overall population. Overall crime rates have been declining since the early 1990s during a time of rising immigration. Meanwhile, welfare reform has made it difficult for immigrants to qualify for most major welfare programs.

The modest cost that low‐​skilled immigrants impose on state and local governments are more than offset by increased economic activity. Immigrants enable important sectors of our economy to grow and create jobs for middle‐​class Americans. Immigrants are also consumers, stoking demand for housing, food and consumer goods. A recent study by the Texas comptroller’s office found that the fiscal impact of illegal immigrants on state and local governments was overwhelmed by their positive contribution to the state’s economy.

Along with the economic benefits, immigration reform would make our borders and our country more secure. Allowing workers to enter legally would start to drain the swamp of smuggling and document fraud. It would encourage 12 million people now living in the shadows to come forward. It would allow border patrol agents to focus on catching criminals and terrorists rather than chasing down dishwashers and roofers.

Earlier this year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress that immigration reform “would dramatically reduce the pressure on our borders, aid our economy and ease the task of our law enforcement agents inside the country. There is an inextricable link between the creation of a temporary worker program and better enforcement at the border.” Exactly right.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act failed to fix the problem because it contained no provision to expand future legal immigration. Expanding legal immigration would reduce illegal immigration by giving low‐​skilled foreign‐​born workers a more attractive alternative. When Congress dramatically expanded the number of visas offered to Mexican guest workers in the 1950s, apprehensions at the border dropped by 95 percent.

Undocumented workers in the United States are not bad people. They value work, family and faith. But like the alcohol Prohibition in the 1920s, our war against work has spawned an underground economy, expanded the power of government over our daily lives and criminalized normal, peaceful behavior.

Allowing more foreign‐​born workers to enter and work here legally would make America a more just, prosperous and secure nation.

About the Author
Daniel Griswold
Former Director, Herbert A. Stiefel Center for Trade Policy Studies