Clear Away the Smoke to Find Constructive Immigration Policies

May 23, 2018

Few issues on our political agenda are more heated than the debate on immigration policy. The most recent escalation in that debate came earlier this week when President Trump announced plans to end DACA, an Obama-era program that offers protections to immigrants brought to the United States as children. Some reactions were fiery. Iowa Congressman Steve King, a longtime DACA opponent, challenged Dreamers to turn in their parents to immigration enforcement and plead for amnesty.  Supporters of DACA expressed empathy. Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, denounced the program’s demise as “an unnecessary and unjust nightmare.”

No matter what you think of it, heated language on immigration whether about DACA, a proposed wall along the Mexican border, or attempts to ban immigrants from Muslim-majority nations adds fuel to the flames. It leaves little room for discussion of ways tobalance our concerns for economic competitiveness, national security, and the well-being of citizens separated from their families many of which are neither politically polarizing nor particularly complex. But with so much fire, it’s hard to see good ideas through the smoke.

Let’s start with a few statements with which many of us might agree. Immigration policy impacts our national security and our international competitiveness. It is also a central concern touching the personal lives of millions of individuals and their families. Despite their critical importance to our security, our economy, and our people, our current immigration polices do not serve any of these interests very well, and years of legislative inaction have only made the problems worse. We desperately need better policies to administer legal immigration, limit illegal immigration, and come to grips with millions of people living in the United States illegally. Instead, for several decades, our immigration policies have simply ignored facts on the ground.  

By the numbers, the two largest categories for legal immigration are familybased and employmentbased. The employment based system is complicated, divided into preference categories with numerical caps, but the basic intent of the policy is to meet the needs the marketplace, and by definition these needs change over time.  If our caps and categories do not change with the times, they don’t serve their purpose — we end up denying entry to workers who can contribute to our economic growth and allowing entry to workers with skills we may no longer need. In determining good policies for legal immigration, fiery statements serve no purpose. What we need instead is rationalanalysis of workplace needs that will impact economic growth.

Illegal migration can be a security threat, but the primary motive of illegal migration is jobs.  The fact that hundreds of thousands of people come to the United States to find jobs outside the legal immigration system is a clear indicator that the system does not respond to the actual demand for workers. Making it more responsive would go a long way to solving the problem of illegal migration, but any program aimed at reducing illegal employmentbased immigration must include two other components as well: a workable and reliable system for issuing visas, and stringent penalties against employers who hire undocumented workers.  

Again, this approach to controlling illegal migration is not particularly polarizing or complex. It also places border enforcement in the proper perspective: the critical role of border enforcement is not keeping out migrant workers. It is keeping out terrorists, criminals, and others who would harm the United States by their entry, and doing so in a way that does not damage legitimate commerce. That in itself is a huge task. Even before the 2001 terrorist attacks, there were more than 500 million inspections of individuals crossing United States land borders or arriving at airports each year. Border enforcement between points of entry poses another set of logistical problems. We have 1,989 miles of land border with Mexico, 5,525 miles of land border with Canada, and 95,000 miles of maritime border along our shorelines. Given these challenges, building a wall along our border with Mexico accomplishes nothing. It will not make us any saferfrom terrorists and criminals, and it will not solve the problems of employmentbased illegal migration.  

Finally, Congress must decide on a rational plan to address the millions of foreign migrants living illegally in the United States. Here again the problem has been made worse by decades of legislative inaction. Something like 12 million people live in the United States illegally. Millions of these people are employees, employers, and parents with children of their own who are now American citizens by birth. After so many years of neglect, addressing this problem by mass deportations would cause self-inflicted and unnecessary harm to our economy and our citizens.

A practical starting point is not whether we should wipe the record clean and give illegal migrants amnesty, but whether we should create a path to citizenship allowing them to earn the right to remain here. Fortunately, a practical approach to this issue has the advantage of common sense and public support. Opinion polls show that two-thirds of Americans favor finding a way for those living illegally in the United States to earn lawful status, provided they meet certain conditions for legalization. Legislation introduced as long ago as 2005 would have required applicants to show, for example, a history of employment and tax payments, the ability or willingness to speak English, and passage of criminal background checks. 

Like other political issues we face, there are many different interests to balance in the search for good policy.  Immigration is not an absolute benefit to our economy or an absolute harm, and the more fair and dispassionate studies of immigration show that in fact the costs and benefits of immigration are not shared equally among competing workers, complementary workers, consumers, business owners, and investors. Applying any form of ideology to the immigration debate therefore will get us nowhere.  But if we frame our policy discussion based on the principles of economic growth, national security, and the well-being of citizens separated from their families, surely we can find ways to succeed.