Immigration reform should wait until 2009

With the Senate immigration bill now stalled, proponents say they must dislodge it. "[T]here are big problems that have to be addressed, and there's no political gain in it and maybe even political loss. You've got to do it, nonetheless," Arizona Senator John Kyl said Sunday. But the lawmakers' urgency has more to do with political timing than with the issue itself. Immigration policy has been broken for years. Moreover, past efforts at applying Kyl's favored repairs--"[s]ecuring the border, enforcing the law, a simple employee verification system, a temporary worker program, and resolving the status of illegal immigrants"--have only made the problem worse.

At first look, a detached observer might think that the United States manages immigration pretty well. Among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), only the United States and Australia have essentially identical unemployment rates for foreign- and native-born workers. Insofar as immigration has something to do with the labor market, it seems to work. Immigrants do not come to America so they can draw unemployment benefits; they come so they can get a job. Which is scarcely surprising. Wages are high in the United States, and an immigrant coming here for the open-handed welfare state is like Rick Blaine going to Casablanca for the waters: misinformed.

But the strictly economic view does not take up the question of illegal--a.k.a. "undocumented," "irregular," or "unauthorized"--immigration. The United States hosts perhaps 10-12 million unauthorized immigrants, amounting to more than three-and-a-half percent of the American population. Depending on whose estimates you use, that means that the population of irregular immigrants grew by between 350 and 580 thousand each year over the last 15 years or so, the great majority coming from Mexico. Which makes the United States unusual. The only other OECD country with a comparably high percentage of undocumented immigrants in its population is Greece, which also has, in Albania, a significantly poorer neighbor sharing a long, land border.

Such borders have so far proved indefensible against immigration. Since the early 1990s, with programs like "Operation Hold-the-Line," the Border Patrol has annually and dramatically increased the officer-hours spent watching the border, almost quadrupling the number from 1990 to 2003. Border Patrol accounts for 93 percent of all deportable immigrants apprehended. Yet the number of unauthorized immigrants living in the United States has steadily increased despite the simultaneously increasing resources devoted to enforcement.

The reason for this paradox is almost certainly insincerity. With all this emphasis on border security, we're not really trying to stop illegal immigration; we're only trying to look like we're trying. Although the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) made it illegal knowingly to hire an illegal immigrant, the United States has spent little time or money enforcing this provision, as the GAO noted in 1999 and again in 2005, during which period the number of employers paying significant fines for violating IRCA has fallen to nil. By ramping up enforcement at the border and drawing it down at the worksite, we're putting the cost of illegal immigration on the prospective worker (who has to incur all the difficulties of getting across) and not on the prospective employer or his customers.

A guest-worker program is supposed to rectify this imbalance, by licensing temporary immigrant labor, but it would bring a set of problems. The last time we had similar laws for Mexican laborers, back in the 1950s and 1960s, employers avoided providing their guest workers anything like the conditions they owed to the native-born; as one Texan said, "As soon as you begin to Americanize a Mexican he's no longer any good. He just won't work any more." Moreover, today's Mexican migrant laborer isn't your grandfather's Mexican migrant laborer. Increasingly, unauthorized immigrants aren't seasonal agricultural pickers but service workers, and it's not clear what "temporary" work would mean for the non-seasonal immigrant laborer.

Finally, commenters like Paul Krugman worry that a guest-worker program would let us "drift into a new system of de facto apartheid." This isn't quite right. What the program would do is lend the color of law and respectability to what we have, which is an old system of, if not apartheid, then a migrant labor proletariat--a propertyless class with few rights or hopes of advancement. Legalizing this system would relieve Americans of the discomfort we have with migrant labor. That is a reward we have not earned. We need that discomfort. It lets us know we're doing something wrong. And the way to stop doing wrong is not to start calling it right.

Rather than ratify the migrant proletariat by simply changing its name from "illegal" to "guest," Americans should seek ways to move workers substantially toward legal status. We have in our history better examples to follow than guest-worker programs that ratify the segregation of immigrants. In the early twentieth century, facing a large immigrant population remitting money home, the U.S. Congress established a federal postal savings system to keep some of the fruits of immigrant labor here, and in the hands of immigrants instead of the coffers of wire services. The program proved immensely popular among immigrants, who knew a good thing when they saw the prospect of financial Americanization. Today, unauthorized immigrants probably remit more money than legal ones do and lose a lot of it to costly wire services, whether through unfamiliarity with American banking systems or fear of discovery. Rules to enable immigrants to save through normal channels can confer benefits including, as the OECD notes, "reduced banking costs, interest-paying savings accounts, the responsible use of credit, and ultimately financial practices that are rewarded by the tax system, such as home ownership and retirement savings accounts." And they would shift the substantial status of immigrants, rather than merely changing their label.

Illinois Senator Richard Durbin recently said, "The force behind this compromise is the understanding that if we fail, the process ends probably for the next two years." Which is itself the best argument against passing immigration reform now. Any serious reform to American immigration law would require conscientious, competent, and good-faith efforts by the executive bureaucracy. Lawmakers seeking such efforts had better wait till 2009.

By Eric Rauchway