What is the point of immigration reform? It is not about securing the political future of one political party or the other. Nor is the point to supply business with an abundance of cheap labor. And contrary to much of what we’ve heard in recent weeks, the primary goal is not to create a border so secure it would make Kim Jong Un proud.
Immigration reform is primarily about respect -- for the dignity of human beings and for the rule of law. Reform should legalize work, reduce incentives for illegal employment, and raise the prospects for advancement of millions of people who lack political power and economic opportunity solely because of the legal status assigned to them.
The most important objective remains legalization and a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. If the U.S. is a nation of laws -- and we like to think it is -- then ushering undocumented residents into lawful citizenship is crucial. If the U.S. is also a nation of opportunity -- again, we think it is -- then ending employers’ ability to exploit undocumented workers is vital. And if the U.S. is to be a democracy equal to its ambitions -- and who doesn’t want that? -- then supplanting a disenfranchised underclass with empowered citizens is essential.
The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office estimated that the U.S. Senate’s immigration bill would boost economic growth and cut the federal deficit by almost $1 trillion over the next two decades. In part, this is because immigrants create jobs. They create them both because they consume goods and services -- more so when they are legal -- and because they are far more likely to start businesses and more likely to own businesses than native workers are. The Senate legislation’s expansion of visas for highly skilled workers, who are major contributors to the U.S. technology and science sectors and have a multiplier effect on national wealth, is especially important.
At the same time it builds citizenship and opportunity, the U.S. must end incentives for immigrants to cross borders, risk their lives and flout the law in pursuit of work. The Senate bill expands the E-Verify electronic employment-verification system nationwide. Fewer than half a million employers use the system now. Over a five-year rollout, all of the nation’s more than 7 million employers would be required to adopt the system to check the legal status of prospective employees.
This process won’t be glitch-free; headaches inevitably will result for employers and job-seekers alike. But the only way to curtail the flow of undocumented immigrants is to shut off their access to jobs. The place to do that is at the workplace.
If an expansion of E-Verify eliminates the job market for undocumented immigrants, the border fortifications envisioned by the Senate bill will appear even more absurd. They never had much practical value; the Senate’s rationale for the $46 billion militarization of the Southwest was mostly political. And in that sense, it worked: The bill passed the Senate with a hefty majority.
As policy, however, the border boondoggle is largely beside the point. It does nothing to rationalize immigration law -- just the opposite -- and it will not deter illegal immigration if the prospect of employment continues to lure undocumented job-seekers. The border-industrial complex, even if it works, also risks becoming an international embarrassment. How will helicopters, radar, ground sensors, fiber-optic scopes and another 19,000 U.S. Border Patrol agents along hundreds of miles of new fencing look to the rest of the world?
Other nations have built similar monuments to their insecurity, with structures variously intended to keep people in or lock them out. The barriers inevitably tarnish their builders. If the U.S. pursues this folly, it will fall to someone with a clearer vision to say, as an American president once did in Berlin, “Tear down this wall.”
Immigration reform is about laws, not walls. That’s what the U.S. House of Representatives should keep in mind as it takes up the issue this week. A focus on first principles would be a welcome respite from an obsession with second-rate politics.
To contact the Bloomberg View editorial board: firstname.lastname@example.org.