An influx of millions of largely unskilled, uneducated, rootless workers would present a challenge to any nation. At points around the globe, it often does. Though the U.S. has been defined -- physically, culturally and metaphorically -- by immigrants, that doesn’t mean it always will be.
Nor does it mean that immigration should be a self-selecting process, with the U.S. accepting whoever possesses the wiles to sneak over the border. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for America’s long embrace of immigration to continue, and for it to be extended to the illegal immigrants already here.
In addressing illegal immigration, two questions stand out. First, what to do with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants who are here today. Second, how to deal with millions more who stand ready to breach the border, and the law, in order to reside here in the future. Those tandem concerns are the focus of “comprehensive immigration reform,” a concept with deep roots in the political lexicon but, as yet, none in the law.
Illegal immigration has both economic and moral dimensions. In a May 10 speech in El Paso, Texas, President Barack Obama called comprehensive reform an “economic imperative.” Yet calculating the costs and benefits of illegal immigration is difficult. According to a 2007 Council on Foreign Relations report, individual state governments most likely lose money paying for services to illegal immigrants while the federal government realizes a modest revenue bump from their presence. Illegal immigration places burdens on health-care and education systems, especially in border states, such as Arizona. At the same time, perhaps half of all illegal immigrants pay state and federal taxes, including Social Security payroll taxes, though they are ineligible to collect benefits.
Stake in Society
Illegal labor supports the nation’s general prosperity while undermining wages in some low-skill trades. George Borjas, a Harvard University professor of economics, points out that if illegal immigrants reduce the market wage for a low-skilled, low-income earner by only 4 percent, the effect can be devastating. Yet anecdotal evidence abounds that many illegal immigrants work in jobs that U.S. citizens don’t want and won’t accept.
While the short-term economic impact of illegal immigration is mixed, the long-term picture is clearer: Immigrants create jobs, add to the tax rolls and generate national wealth. New York City was rescued in the 1980s and 1990s by the labor of immigrants; today, roughly half a million illegal immigrants help keep the city humming. Many illegal immigrants have established roots in American communities and almost 4 million of their children are U.S. citizens. Having invested heavily in the education of these children, we should encourage them to stay and lend their skills to the economy.
Pathway to Citizenship
Likewise, we should bring America’s illegal residents into the mainstream by providing a pathway to citizenship. Businesses need their spending to sustain growth and employment; the housing market needs their aspirations to fuel recovery; baby boomers, on the verge of retiring in record numbers, need their taxes to fund Medicare and Social Security. For these reasons and more, President Obama should speak out consistently and forthrightly in defense of such a policy.
Opponents decry a pathway to citizenship -- which would require the payment of fines and other measures in return for legal status -- as “amnesty.” We cede the point. With comprehensive reform, illegal immigrants would, in effect, be rewarded for having broken the law and outlasted the political opposition. However, there are times when compassion is the better part of self-interest, and comprehensive reform would also constitute a reward for the ambition and fortitude that countless illegal immigrants display by forging productive lives in precarious circumstances.
Moralistic demands for mass deportations are neither realistic nor especially moral. The Obama administration deported almost 800,000 illegal immigrants in its first two years, a record number that has left broken families, riled communities and fear in its wake. Yet its annual expulsions account for less than 4 percent of the illegal population. There is no way to banish 11 million people without unleashing an ugly police dragnet that would drain public budgets and batter the body politic, setting pro- and anti-immigrant citizens at one another’s throats.
Illegal immigrants contribute much today; after reform, we could expect those contributions to grow. Once legalized, immigrants would have higher wages and improved education, allowing them to add value to communities and the nation. With access to credit and investment opportunities, immigrants would gain a greater stake in society and make more of their own human and financial capital.
This solution is predicated on a strong enforcement component. The Obama administration has delivered on this, deploying 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest border, adding 250 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and beefing up the Border Patrol, which now has almost 21,000 officers, more than double the number in 2004. Illegal immigration has declined; border seizures of drugs, weapons and currency have risen significantly.
Still, the U.S. has 7,500 miles of border with Mexico and Canada and 88,000 miles of coastline. There is no way to secure this vast expanse. The only way to rebuff future illegal immigrants is to shut off their prospects for employment. This will probably require a biometric national identity card, a federal database to confirm each card’s legitimacy and severe penalties for employers who hire workers lacking an authentic card. Civil libertarians on left and right object to this plan. Their concerns are justified, which is why cards should contain only the holder’s name, Social Security number, residency status and a biometric marker to confirm identity. No other information should be permitted on the cards or in the database.
With the flow of illegal immigrants diminished, the U.S. would be able to increase visas for legal immigration. The current limit on visas for highly skilled immigrants is one of the most self-defeating policies imaginable, undermining economic growth in the U.S. while supplying entrepreneurs and skilled workers to global competitors. The consequence for government budgets is also stark. A 1997 National Research Council report estimated that highly skilled immigrants have, overall, a positive fiscal impact of $198,000 each. Visas for low-skilled immigrants should be increased, as well, sustaining the opportunity to rise from the bottom that is the essence of the American dream.
Opposition to immigration is a mainstay of U.S. politics. By the early 1830s, Samuel F.B. Morse, an inventor of the telegraph, was already inveighing against the “outcast tenants of the poorhouses and prisons of Europe” who would soon strangle a nation in its infancy. But the immigrants kept coming. They shaped American character and fueled American success. Their story isn’t over.
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