A Sound US Plan for Immigration

WASHINGTON – The immigration issue has not been dealt with via comprehensive legislation, as it was hoped for during the summer. But it has not gone away. Unsolved, it is still out there; simmering and enticing more and more emotional reactions. “Do it yourself” measures undertaken by a host of state and local actors aimed at dealing somehow with illegal immigrants in their midst fan the flames of emotions on both sides of the divide, without providing clear and equitable long term solutions.

The US legislators who killed the comprehensive reform plan, flawed as it might have been, are guilty of political cowardice. Those who were against the proposed legislation that did not pass last summer, after rejoicing for their victory against the outrage of “amnesty”, should have proposed something better. The idea, advanced by at least some of them, that we do not need new statutes but only the serious enforcement of existing legislation is disingenuous populism. They know full well that it is materially impossible to round up and deport all the millions of illegal aliens. But it is easy to posture on this issue, claiming that, after all, “this is the law.”

At the federal level, Homeland Security most likely wanted to maintain the pressure on the issue by trying to force employers to check on potentially phony identification credentials provided by their workers. By raising the specter of criminal charges against employers who do not fully investigate potential status fraud in job applications, maybe the federal government thought that the business community would force Congress to take action and provide a comprehensive settlement formula for the millions of illegals who are employed. This move, for the time being, has been stopped by judicial action.

But there are many other initiatives aimed at “doing something” about the illegals. For instance, a few jurisdictions in Texas and elsewhere have created automatic checks on the immigration status of any person stopped for routine traffic violations who cannot provide proper identification. For the illegals, deportation may very well be the ultimate consequence of not observing a stop sign.

While all these measures and attempted measures are technically correct, as they are aimed at law breakers, they create the worst possible scenario of widespread fears of mean, racist persecution, (with intense resentment among the many legal Latino citizens who feel sympathetic towards the illegals), without really “resolving” the problem. The authorities may very well say that citizens and legal residents have nothing to worry about. But the truth is that occasional, random enforcement of the law is inherently unfair. Most of those who are caught in these dragnets, while technically law breakers, are not real hardened criminals who should be deported as they represent a threat to society. They are the unlucky scapegoats who pay the price of legislative inaction; while the larger issue of a meaningful overhaul of immigration is left unattended. Plucking a few people here and there and deporting them causes tensions, while providing no solution to this vast problem.

On the other side of the divide there are those who would like not just leniency regarding the millions of illegals, but who create a new fantastic picture whereby there is really no offense, criminal or otherwise to be concerned with. These are just “undocumented”, “indocumentados” workers. They are here because there is a need for their labor. What’s wrong with that? Being “undocumented” is looked at as a mere technicality that could be easily dealt with. But this approach is wrong. The term “undocumented” to describe an individual who entered the country illegally is an absurd euphemism that would like to do away with the problem by denying its existence. Furthermore, the fact that the term “indocumentado” is the only one used by the Spanish language US television networks when discussing these matters misleads their mostly immigrant audience and it is ultimately dangerous. As being “indocumentado” sounds like a minor bureaucratic issue, if people are rounded up, arrested or deported, then it must be about racism and disregard for basic human rights.

This scenario is bad and it could become worse because of the tension heightened by selective enforcement. Getting rid of all the illegals is impossible. Likewise, to claim that coming to the US illegally is no big deal and it should not have consequences is preposterous. It is time to get serious. Let’s stop populist demands to enforce the law as is (thus deporting millions of people); and let’s stop asking for open borders for all, as if it were the duty of the United States to make room for anybody who cares to show up.

There are unfortunately many drivers behind this mess. But we can say that there are two fundamental dimensions. First: How to regulate future immigration, so that we create a credible, rational process that serves America’s interests; distinguishing carefully, though, between those who are just interested to work in the US and those who are interested in becoming part of the US society. Second: how to deal with the illegals who are already here.

On the first issue, Mexico, the country of origin of most of the illegals, has a huge responsibility. Mexico is a middle income developing nation  with significant income disparities and millions in permanent poverty. Lacking the ability to improve the conditions of its poor, Mexico regards the encouragement of illegal emigration to the US as a key component of its social policies. “You are poor? You cannot find employment? Go north to the US and good luck to you. If this means breaking the law of a neighboring country, this is their problem.” If Mexico were a more mature society, we could expect more cooperation from their end aimed at blocking would be illegal emigrants. But, as long as illegal emigration to the US is viewed as a convenient tool to alleviate the social pressures caused by the vasy army of the very poor, we cannot hope on this, for the time being. So, no serious barrier to stop the outgoing flow.

On the US side, it is quite clear that the flow of illegals is fueled by manpower demand from within America. And here we have an extremely complicated picture. The enemies of immigration accuse cynical US businesses of encouraging the inward flow of illegals so that they can pay them less; or, at the very least, so that, by relying on an inflated labor pool of legal and illegal workers, they can keep wages depressed for all. Businesses reply that this is not so. They need labor. The  immigrants, legal or otherwise, are the only ones willing to do certain jobs. The truth must be somewhere in the middle.

It is quite obvious that various social and economic factors, on both sides of the border, tend to feed the pipeline of illegal immigration. One day, assuming a developed Mexico, Mexicans would not try their luck by illegally crossing the border seeking opportunity, as they would have sufficient income at home. But we are not there.

This is why we need new credible policies and actions aimed at creating a secure border, as people without jobs at home have and will continue to have the incentive to cross it illegally. By the same token, The US official posture of stating that illegal immigration is a crime but at the same time relying on an insufficiently guarded, porous border to enforce the law, is an indirect nod to the illegals and to those who push them out and pull them in. “Look, it is illegal, of course. But, since the chances of not being caught are relatively good, you can give it a try”.

The United States, the country that can afford to spend billions of dollars every month for a controversial Iraq war, could spend a few more billions to create a credible border that can be crossed only legally through official checks. I have no idea as to whether a border fence is the best technical means to achieve the goal. But the twin notions that somehow it would be technically impossible to construct a fence or that, if successful, this barrier would be shameful and inhumane since it would prevent interaction between societies, are both ridiculous. Technically it is feasible. And it is certainly politically and morally justifiable for a sovereign country to do its utmost to prevent illegal border crossings.

And let us put an end to the silly comparisons with the Berlin Wall. Once and for all let us remember that until the Berlin Wall existed its only purpose was to keep very unhappy people who wanted to go elsewhere in; not unwelcome invaders out. In East Berlin, the machine guns on the fortified Wall were trained inside the border, to kill if necessary the East Germans who might have tried to escape from their workers paradise. What is at issue regarding the US border with Mexico is something entirely different: how to keep unwanted trespassers out. How can this be bad? Does anybody question the right of any individual to have a door in their home? A door that they will open only to welcome visitors? Is having a door in the house a manifestation of hostility towards outsiders?

As for the issue of lack of sufficient numbers of US workers in many key sectors, including some characterized by seasonal demand, the simple answer is to create a well crafted and carefully monitored guest workers program. Many Mexicans or other people who come through Mexico do not necessarily want to stay in the US forever. They need income. Assuming the validity of the basic premise: namely not enough US citizens willing to perform certain tasks, then it should be relatively simple to create guest workers programs aimed at attracting foreigners willing to perform those activities for the same wages offered to US nationals with the same skills. These work permits would not be considered paths to eventual residency and citizenship. This program would be about creating an official, transparent channel aimed at providing the needed labor supply.

As for the other immigrants, aside from political asylum seekers, there are the skilled ones and those who would come on the basis of close family relations with legal immigrants. A solution for both categories does exist. As for skilled people, it is clearly in the US interest to attract more educated, talented people. Individuals willing to come to America in order to engage in research, business and enterprise should be encouraged. However, for them as well as for all other would be new citizens, an induction process should be created whereby they will understand that America is not just a place to do business. America is a country that upholds certain basic values enshrined in the Constitution. Those who do not share them, or, worse, who openly proclaim views that are inimical to the fundamental principles of liberal democracy, regardless of their talent or capital, do not belong.

The immigration of close family relations of newly minted citizens or permanent residents should not be an opportunity to create an endless chain whereby the legalized new immigrant has a right to sponsor relatives who, upon being legalized, sponsor other relatives etc. Restricting this process without causing the break up of basic family units should not be an impossible task.

Assuming a credible solution that would stop the flow of illegals, while regulating in an intelligent way the flow of new legal immigrants, skilled and unskilled, then the hard part of dealing with the millions of illegals settled in the US could begin. We know that the specter of a gigantic amnesty offered to all created the wave of indignation eventually leading to the defeat of the immigration bill last summer. Yet, it is clear that any serious attempt at resolving the issue of the illegals, many of them having been living in the US for decades, will have to entail some kind of broad legalization process eventually resulting for all practiacl purposes in amnesty. It is hard to think of any other approach to the illegals that would not cause the painful dislocation of millions, with inordinate injury to them and many others.

However, before legalizing everybody, a choice should be offered to the many who are here only for economic reasons and who aspire to eventually go back to their countries; or who would be perfectly willing to come and go according to the seasonal needs of the economic sectors; assuming that they could do so legally, without fear of being apprehended each time they cross the border. They are the perfect target for a guest worker program that would allow them to do what they are already doing but with full transparency for them and for their employers.

For all the others, a path to ultimate legalization should be created. It is preposterous to think that we are going to send back people who have been living here for a decade or more, in the same fashion in which we would deal with someone caught by the border patrol an hour ago. It would be totally impractical, if not equally preposterous, to mandate that these illegals go back to their country of origin, file an application and wait for  afew years at the back of the line. These are people with established lives, homes and jobs here in the US. To deny this fact is absurd.

Having said that, we should recognize that the most compelling argument against any form of legalization is that it would be viewed as a green light for more illegal immigration to come. Amnesty now would encourage others to keep coming illegally, based on the fact that eventually an amnesty will come for them as well. This is a very valid point against amnesty/legalization. This is why securing the borders and creating a credible process to regulate future legal immigration is an absolutely necessary precondition to any serious plan aimed at settling the problem of the illegals. If we did this right, we would not have to face again this kind of immigration issue ten or twenty years from now.

At a different level, and only with hoped for effects in the long term, it would be in the strategic interest on the United States to strongly support in a meaningful way economic development south of the border. The Mexicans and others encourage people to emigrate because their societies cannot create sufficient opportunity at home. If such opportunity existed, people would stay in their countries and we would not be having this need to create barriers aimed at preventing the unlawful entry of millions driven by economic hardships. After all, we are not talking about a fence on our northern border with Canada, simply because the Canadians are doing well at home and, by and large, intense business and cultural relations with the US notwithstanding, they are happy to stay there.

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