Real Reform Can Fix Immigration

This opinion piece is part of an Intelligence Squared debate that aired in October 2007.
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We can't close our eyes and hope illegal immigration goes away.Nor can we simply throw money at the same enforcement programs thathave failed to fix the problem for more than 20 years. To solvethis vexing problem, we need to reform our immigration system in away that recognizes economic reality, guards our security andreduces the incentives for illegal immigration.

Low-skilled immigrants come here for the same reasons ourforebears came: family ties and economic opportunity. Our economycontinues to create hundreds of thousands of new jobs each year forlower-skilled workers in such important sectors as retail,hospitality, cleaning, landscaping, food preparation, lightmanufacturing and agriculture. At the same time the number ofAmericans who have traditionally filled such jobs - those without ahigh school diploma - continues to shrink.

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

Efforts to enforce the current law have failed miserably. Forthe past two decades, we have dramatically increased spending onborder enforcement, built walls for miles into the desert andraided restaurants and chicken-processing plants from coast tocoast. Despite ramped-up enforcement, the number of people livingin the United States without legal documents continues to grow.

Our border enforcement has only pushed migrants into more remoteregions of the desert, driving up fees for smuggling and the numberof deaths on the border. Since Operation Gatekeeper began in 1994,4,500 people have died horrible deaths from heat or dehydration forthe "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 mustinclude an expanded visa program so that willing workers fromMexico and elsewhere can enter the United States legally to help usbuild a more vibrant economy, and reform must offer a path to legalstatus for workers already here.

Immigrants come to America to work, not to go on welfare orcause trouble. Studies show immigrants are less likely to commitcrimes than their native-born counterparts. Department of Justicefigures show that just 6 percent of federal and state inmates arenoncitizens, less than their share of the overall population.Overall crime rates have been declining since the early 1990sduring a time of rising immigration. Meanwhile, welfare reform hasmade it difficult for immigrants to qualify for most major welfareprograms.

The modest cost that low-skilled immigrants impose on state andlocal governments are more than offset by increased economicactivity. Immigrants enable important sectors of our economy togrow and create jobs for middle-class Americans. Immigrants arealso consumers, stoking demand for housing, food and consumergoods. A recent study by the Texas comptroller's office found thatthe fiscal impact of illegal immigrants on state and localgovernments was overwhelmed by their positive contribution to thestate's economy.

Along with the economic benefits, immigration reform would makeour borders and our country more secure. Allowing workers to enterlegally would start to drain the swamp of smuggling and documentfraud. It would encourage 12 million people now living in theshadows to come forward. It would allow border patrol agents tofocus on catching criminals and terrorists rather than chasing downdishwashers and roofers.

Earlier this year, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertofftold Congress that immigration reform "would dramatically reducethe pressure on our borders, aid our economy and ease the task ofour law enforcement agents inside the country. There is aninextricable link between the creation of a temporary workerprogram and better enforcement at the border." Exactly right.

The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act failed to fix theproblem because it contained no provision to expand future legalimmigration. Expanding legal immigration would reduce illegalimmigration by giving low-skilled foreign-born workers a moreattractive alternative. When Congress dramatically expanded thenumber 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 Prohibitionin the 1920s, our war against work has spawned an undergroundeconomy, expanded the power of government over our daily lives andcriminalized normal, peaceful behavior.

Allowing more foreign-born workers to enter and work herelegally would make America a more just, prosperous and securenation.