Monday, April 17, 2006

How to manage illegal immigration

Watching the furor over immigration policy during the past week, I felt strangely uninvolved. I heard the arguments on both sides, I saw the protesters, I read the commentary. But up here in Minnesota it's not a burning issue, so I've never had to resolve the conflicting impulses that the subject raises for me.

The only thing that was clear was that the subject is far more complex than activists on either side admit. So I decided it was high time I developed a position on the subject.

First I did some thinking. Then I did some research.

It seems to me that any immigration policy should recognize the following facts:

1. Every country has a right to control the flow of immigrants into it.

2. In the aftermath of 9/11 border control is a security issue, not just an economic issue.

3. The cost of the solution should not exceed the cost of the problem.

4. Barring seriously drastic measures, illegal immigration will never be eradicated. We need to manage the problem rather than trying to eradicate it.

5. The best way to fight illegal immigration is to give people incentives, both positive and negative, not to come here illegally.

6. It makes no sense to crack down on illegal immigrants without cracking down on the businesses and individuals that employ them.

Starting from those facts, let's address some of the common arguments used in the immigration debate.

Illegal immigrants are criminals. While technically true, it's a gross oversimplification of the debate. For most illegal immigrants, the only crime they ever commit is crossing the border without permission. Labeling them criminals is a bit like subjecting serial jaywalkers to a "three strikes" rule.

Further, there are huge gray areas that such a simplistic approach does not handle very well. What about the teenager whose parents brought him across the border when he was an infant? He's been raised in America, and culturally is as American as anyone. Is he a criminal? Is justice served by deporting him back to a country he has no connection to?

Then there are the cases where illegal immigrants have children here in the States. Those children are citizens. Do we really support breaking up families by deporting the parents?

Illegal immigrants are a drain on our resources. Like any new arrival in our country, illegal immigrants use a disproportionate share of social services. And that is a cost that should really be borne by the entire nation, not the border communities that are home to the largest populations of illegals.

But that's only part of the picture. Every wave of immigrants starts out poor. What such accounting doesn't reflect is that by the second or third generation most immigrant families are established and moving up the economic ladder. And they bring with them the energy and desire to improve their lives that has powered the United States since its inception. So focusing on the short-term costs misses the larger point. Such a selective analysis could be used to support a total ban on immigration, which clearly wouldn't be in our best interests.

Besides, the cost of illegal immigration are likely overstated.

Mr. Borjas and Mr. Katz ... found that the surge in illegal immigration reduced the wages of high school dropouts by just 3.6 percent. Across the entire labor force, the effect of illegal immigrants was zero, because the presence of uneducated immigrants actually increased the earnings of more educated workers, including high school graduates. For instance, higher-skilled workers could hire foreigners at low wages to mow their lawns and care for their children, freeing time for these workers to earn more. And businesses that exist because of the availability of cheap labor might also need to employ managers.

Illegal immigrants are lazy spongers. Fact is, other than their illegal arrival, illegal immigrants are precisely the sort of people we should want to have coming here. They don't just decide to cross the border on a lark one day and start sucking at the teat of American welfare. These are people who see such limited opportunity in their home country -- for both them and their children -- that they are willing to leave everything they know in search of a better life. They pay smugglers thousands and thousands of dollars to sneak them across the border, risking death, injury and capture. All so they can work for $3 an hour in near-slave conditions, with a built-in ceiling on economic advancement thanks to their illegal status. How desperate would you have to be before you considered doing something like that? And isn't that sort of pluck exactly what we claim as the benefit of being a nation of immigrants?

We should not crack down on immigrants, illegal or otherwise, who are simply trying to make a life for themselves and their families. While illegals should be treated humanely, they are here illegally, and they do have unwanted economic effects. We should have a rational method for cracking down on illegal immigration, but we should not simply turn a blind eye or enact elaborate restrictions that make it unnecessarily difficult to identify and arrest illegals.

We should deny illegal immigrants access to public services and schools. This is just plain stupid from a public policy perspective. They're here; we do ourselves no favors by preventing them from getting an education or other kinds of help. Cutting them off would have the effect of turning them into criminals in the full sense of the word, forced to steal and defraud in order to survive. Cutting them off from public health services would just increase our overall health bill in the end. Let's not cut off our nose to spite our face.

Americans don't want the jobs that illegal immigrants do. This isn't provably true, there will always be exceptions, and even if it is true the reason may be less the work involved than the pay rate. A more accurate assessment might be that without the cheap labor of illegals, those jobs wouldn't be in this country in the first place. But either way, it seems clear that illegal immigration does affect the job and earning prospects of American workers at the bottom of the education ladder.

America can't handle too many immigrants at once. In a theoretical sense, this is true; if 1 million illegal Mexican immigrants suddenly descended on Luxembourg, for instance, it would overnight become a Mexican-majority country. But the United States has 300 million people; we're not so easily overwhelmed. WIth the INS estimating there are only about 9 million illegal immigrants in the United States as of 2005, the "we can't handle it" argument starts to look very weak. Looking at history, it gets even weaker. Between 1905 and 1914, an average of 1 million people a year immigrated to this country -- at a time when the population of the United States was about 90 million. Somehow we absorbed that. To achieve the same relative disruption today, we'd have to be letting in 3.3 million immigrants a year. We're not even close to that. In 2004 we admitted fewer than 1 million legal immigrants. Add to that the INS estimate of 500,000 illegal immigrants a year, and it's clear we're not even close to reaching the limits of our absorption rate -- whatever that rate might be.

(For a wealth of information on immigration, check out Homeland Security's 2004 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics. It's a pdf; on page 11 is a chart showing immigration by year going back to 1820).

The problem with illegal immigrants, then, is not the cost, nor the number of immigrants, nor the immigrants themselves. It's that it is uncontrolled, which makes establishing policy difficult and poses a security risk.

The value of closing that security hole is subjective, but the relatively small objective costs of illegal immigration suggest that spending huge buckets of money to stop it just doesn't pass the cost-benefit test. Any solution should either be cost-effective by itself or have other benefits that justify the expense.

We need a comprehensive approach, not piecemeal solutions. Any attempt to address the immigration problem should include stricter enforcement in this country coupled with incentives to keep people from wanting to come here illegally in the first place.

1. Manage the demand side. Crack down on employers as well as their illegal employees, to reduce the demand side of the illegal labor problem. Fines alone won't do it; that just becomes a cost of doing business. If a business is a chronic employer of illegal workers, there should be jail terms for company executives.

We don't even come close to doing this now:

The lack of vigorous enforcement against employers who hire illegal workers has been widely viewed as the main reason that 850,000 immigrants cross the border illegally each year. Facing little in the way of penalties, employers feel few qualms about hiring them for meatpacking, construction, agriculture and janitorial work....

The number of federal immigration agents who focus on work-site enforcement plunged to 65 nationwide in 2004, from 240 in 1999, according to the Government Accountability Office. Moreover, the government reduced the number of notices of intent to fine employers who hired illegal immigrants to just 3 in 2004 from 417 in 1999.

65 agents nationwide? That's the first mistake.

We may want to tread carefully in this area, because as I noted above some of these industries only exist because of the cheap labor of illegals. But if we're going to arrest the workers, we should arrest the employers as well -- be they a corporation or a private individual with an illegal gardener. A few high-profile examples might have a big deterrent effect -- and would certainly reveal whether we as a country have the stomach for such tactics. If we don't, we need to adjust our strategy to that reality.

2. Work with the Mexican government to increase economic opportunity in Mexico. This may seem counter to our national economic interests -- helping set up Mexican workers to compete against us in the global market -- but the best way to persuade people to stay home is to give them some reason to do so. Assuming cultural and family ties are important, most people would prefer to build a life in Mexico than in the United States. Even slight improvements in economic opportunity in Mexico should have an impact on the flow of illegal immigrants.

3. Increase our legal immigrant quota. It's way too low anyway. And by giving people a reasonable chance of being able to immigrate legally, we reduce their incentive to immigrate illegally in the meantime. I'd consider doubling the quota to 2 million a year, with half of it earmarked for Mexico.

4. Implement selective amnesty programs. Have ways to help illegal immigrants become citizens -- if they go home first. Provide amnesty to children who were raised here and are substantially American, perhaps with requirements that they graduate from high school and hold a steady job. A general amnesty is a bad idea. But allow humane exceptions to a general deportation rule.

5. Border security. If we can reduce the flow of illegal immigrants, that makes it easier to monitor our borders for security risks. Building a fence isn't an answer; it would be hugely expensive and easily circumvented. The only way we get a reasonable chance of catching infiltrating terrorists is if they can't hide in a flood of illegal immigrants. So while we should increase our patrol efforts, improved border security will really be a side effect of the other strategies listed above.

6. Sharing the costs. The federal government should provide aid to border cities and states to help shoulder the cost of providing services to illegal aliens.

7. Education assistance for American workers. This is totally off the cuff, but the study I cite above indicates that the only workers adversely affected by illegal immigration are high school dropouts. Given that, we could lessen the impact by moving at least some of those workers up the educational and professional ladder so they no longer have to compete with low-wage illegals.

Adopting just some of these proposals would be a mistake; they're a package deal. They may not be as emotionally satisfying as walling off our southern border, but it would be a whole lot cheaper and far more practical. The Great Wall didn't work for China; it won't work for us.

As long as America is a land of opportunity, we will have people trying to get into the country any way they can. A rational, humane policy that seeks to manage rather than stop that flow will pay off in both the economic and security arenas -- and perhaps the political and diplomatic as well.

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Blogger flaime said...

What about the teenager whose parents brought him across the border when he was an infant? He's been raised in America, and culturally is as American as anyone.

Is he? Then why has he been in the forefront of the demonstrations carrying a MEXICAN flag? Seems to me that he doesn't want to be American, he wants to be Mexican. So, perhaps he should be sent back to Mexico, as that is his identity.

This whole "They want to be Americans" arguement seems specious to me. If they really wanted to be American, they would assimilate. They would learn English. They would give up their more barbaric traditions (like cock fighting, for instance). They would put America before their "nation of origin" if they wanted to be American. I don't see most of these illegal immigrants doing this. They come here. They take American money and send it overseas in vast quantities, to people who will never spend it in a way that benefits America. They refuse to assimilate, but condemn the country they claim they want to join for not making life even easier for them. And, supposedly, if they are coming here and staying, then life is easier for them than where they came from.

4/17/2006 1:57 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

You're making some gross generalizations there. Here are some examples of what I'm talking about:

Teen deported to Denmark

A German boy who was raised in Ohio

Teen can stay, parents deported

Teen deported before high-school graduation

Teen stays, family deported

And that's just from a cursory search.

4/17/2006 3:09 PM  
Blogger Hoots said...

These are the most rational comments I have read regarding immigration. Outstanding.

A lot of people are walking around with their buttons out waiting for somebody to push them to give them an excuse for being negative. I am more pragmatic. The bell will not be un-rung. Several million people seem to have slipped into our midst unnoticed, and now they have the temerity to want to be seen. Imagine that!

Reading the snarky, faux-patriotic tone of many comments, I'm glad that elected representatives are charged with making laws. My hope is that they will address this issue soon, though. Union organizers and political extremists are working the crowds we saw April 10. There is a ticking bomb in our midst that needs to be defused ASAP.

4/17/2006 3:17 PM  
Blogger Time said...

One of your fellow Minnesotans has a nice dialog going on about this issue on his blog:

The comments he has gotten are from all over the political spectrum. Very interesting, check it out.

4/17/2006 3:54 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Hoots, thanks! And thanks for the link. It's kind of fun trying to follow this conversation as it sprawls across multiple blogs.

Time, thanks for the pointer. I like the cross-spectrum comments at the site you mention. But it was a bit light on solutions, which is why I liked seeing your question to the siteowner.

4/17/2006 4:31 PM  
Blogger The Constructivist said...

Thanks for the thoughtful piece.

What do you think of rebalancing labor laws to empower workers as part of your mix of solutions? Given the limits of government resources and political will to enforce regulations, collective bargaining and grievance procedures worked out through union contracts seem to me a sensible way of keeping corporate demands for cheap labor in check. This would also mitigate the negative effects on native high school dropouts' wages, make these jobs more attractive to Americans, and be a mode of civic engagement and assimilation for immigrants.

4/18/2006 4:24 AM  
Blogger JP said...

Thank you for this post!

I propose that the reason we don't see greater enforcement of regulations against businesses is because of the influence of pro-business lobbyists and anti-regulation Republicans. I completely agree that if we don't control the demand side, the supply will climb over any wall we build. No matter how high.

4/18/2006 7:33 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Constructivist: Sure, unions can help. But they're not a panacea. I'm a member of a union, and it does a good job. But I've also been a member of useless unions, and unions that were actively harmful.

JP: You're probably right to some extent. Plus nobody wants to shut down a company, eliminate a source of tax revenue and toss people out of work. But if that's how we're going to react in specific cases, then our general strategy needs to take that into account. Right now we tend to talk tough in the abstract and then do the opposite when it comes down to cases.

4/18/2006 9:02 AM  
Blogger aspienat said...

You didn't factor in the effect illegal immigration has on those trying to get here legally. My neighbor’s nephew who is a part time college student in Panama has been legally trying to get into the country for years. He blames illegal immigrants for his problems and so do the rest of us. The goverment would let more people in legally if they didn't have the criminals who willingly break the law and come here with out permission to fill the jobs. So if you give amnesty to the line cutting criminals then you leave no room for the law abiding immigrants.
Both sides of my family came to the US legally why can't everyone else do the same. It’s just not fair to those who play by the rules.

4/18/2006 10:47 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

I find it unlikely that the kind of jobs illegal immigrants are doing are the kind of jobs legal immigrants would do.

And I don't support a general amnesty for illegals, only narrow amnesties for people caught in specific situations that are largely not of their own making.

One thing I did not get into, but think is important, is to simplify the process for legal immigrants. My cousin-in-law is a legal immigrant (and now a citizen). At one point, for no other reason than bureaucracy, he had to leave the country for a year and hope to be invited back in. He left behind his family and his house. Luckily his employer had overseas operations, or he would have lost his job, too -- the job that provided the employer sponsorship that was the driving force behind his immigration application. It was inhumane, wasteful and pointless.

4/18/2006 3:33 PM  
Anonymous Dana said...

You have made some excellent points about the causes and cures of illegal immigration-most of which I agree with. You have some well thought out ideas which analyze the complexity of this issue.

I have worked with immigrants for 25 years teaching English--many of whom were undocumented. They are hard working, honest people who just want a better life for themselves here in the U.S.

I would take issue with your suggestion of the U.S. working with Mexico to improve its economy in order to keep more Mexicans at home.

The corruption in Mexico, as any Mexican will tell you, is so pervasive I'm not sure a decent standard of liviing could ever filter down to the poor. There is so much graft, corruption and immorality in the culture--top down--it seems an insurmoutable task to reform it. I'm not sure the U.S. government could have much influence. Corruption is so persistent in Mexico--change won't come from the outside in.

I also think that unless you live in a border state, it's impossible to understand the strain that undocumented people are putting on schools and medical facilities. If you have access to statistics from Parkland Hospital in Dallas, a "charity" hospital, you will see the demographics of the people served has changed vastly over the last 10-20 years.

Anyway, thanks for your excellent discussion of a difficult situation.

5/08/2006 9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What about the children who are brought to the US ILLEGLLY AGAINST THEIR WILL? My friend was brought by her parents not by crossing the border, but with fake documents. HER father later fled the US after being found out of fraud leaving behind his wife and chidren.That was 10 years ago and she's ninteen and can't live a normal life, all because her parents made a decision for her. What is she suppose to do? should she be held accountable for her parents actions or should she be allowed to stay according to her history in the US so far? What about thousands of children lke her what should they do?

1/31/2007 12:04 AM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Good question! I'd be inclined to let them stay if they've been in the country a certain length of time -- say, 10 years. But as legal aliens, not citizens.

1/31/2007 8:24 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think nowadays when everyone hears "illegal immigration," they think the same way when they hear "terrorism." A lot of people don't realize how many kids and infants were brought here by their parents and grow up living a very difficult life. Children that are now 18, 19, etc. that are trying to improve their life and make something of themselves (i.e. college)and have to live with the fear that any day they could be sent back to their country and be treated like criminals. These young people have been raised in the U.S. the majority of their lives and would face the same cultural diffrences anyone would if they had to go live in some other country where they have only lived at as infants. It's completely unfair. These young people were PUT in the position they are in today and are still categorized as "illegal immigrants."

4/22/2007 11:50 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Yes. As noted above, we need to be careful about visiting the sins of the parents on to the children.

4/23/2007 9:51 AM  

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