The Magazine

Distinguishing Terrorists from Busboys

How to think about immigration.

Jan 28, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 19 • By TAMAR JACOBY
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WHEN SECRETARY OF STATE Colin Powell and Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda met in Washington on January 10, they resumed talks on a critical issue sidelined by September 11: immigration reform. It was bound to come back. For though the attacks raised security concerns that may make it harder now to reach a deal, they didn't repeal geography or demography or the realities of American labor markets, and the contradictions in U.S. border policy haven't gone away.

For more than two decades, foreign workers have been flooding into the United States, but public policy has failed to keep up with the country's increasing dependence on their labor. The result: a vast population of illegal immigrants (8 million and counting), endemic confusion at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and chronic hypocrisy in Washington. Both political parties see that our immigration law is broken, but their prescriptions for fixing it have historically been so different that reform was hardly worth broaching.

Republicans have traditionally favored guest-worker programs, which import laborers as needed, then send them home when the job is finished, without providing for their families or retirement and without changing the ethnic composition of America. Democrats and union leaders, on the other hand, have advocated amnesty for illegal workers already in the country, an option that promises new recruits for unions and the Democratic party. Historically, each side saw the other's favored solution as anathema: Republicans viewed amnesty as an incentive for lawlessness, while Democrats equated guest-worker programs with exploitation of foreigners and unwelcome competition for the native-born. The breakthrough, which came in July 2001, was the idea of a package deal combining a guest-worker program with the gradual regularization of illegal migrants.

It was an idea born by accident: something the Bush team tripped over and then embraced in an effort to appeal to Latino voters. Early in his term, Bush reached out to Mexican president Vicente Fox, and the two men launched talks about easing tensions on the border. The White House came to the table with a conventional Republican guest-worker proposal, but Fox pressed relentlessly for amnesty, and by the time memos started leaking out of the negotiations, in mid-summer 2001, the two notions were linked, though exactly how was unclear.

Bush himself said nothing publicly about amnesty, preferring vague comments on the benefits of immigration and the importance of Mexico as an ally. Other administration officials were only a shade more specific. "We're proud of the fact that we offer opportunities for people to come to this country and to make a living," Secretary Powell declared, "some to go back, some to ultimately become American citizens. We want to regularize this." But without anything yet in writing, the immigration debate had been transformed.

The decision to champion a double-barreled approach was a brilliant political maneuver on Bush's part. Not only did he steal an issue--humane immigration reform--from the Democrats, but the package he hinted at triggered a tidal wave of enthusiasm among Latinos. Congressional Democrats scrambled to outdo the president with similar proposals of their own, and a little feast of bipartisan ethnic pandering ensued. By the end of the summer, it looked as if there might be a consensus in the offing, some kind of "grand bargain" that combined regularization of illegal workers with an increase in the number of temporary visas. If done right, this has the makings of a model policy. Still, the inchoate proposals that were floating around Washington last summer--and which will surely be revived now--need to be tempered and refined before they can be embodied in legislation.

MOST OF THE pieces of the solution are already on the table, suggested by the White House, Mexico, someone in Congress, or a Washington think tank. The problem is putting them together in a way that not only works but is true to our values.

Instead of political horsetrading as usual, we ought to start by agreeing on fundamental principles. The basis for a successful immigration policy--the key criterion for who we ought to let in and what we should encourage--should be work. The president hardly seemed to know how novel or important an idea he had stumbled on, but he got it exactly right when he proclaimed last summer: "If somebody is willing to [do] a job others in America aren't willing to do, we ought to welcome that person to the country."