The Magazine

Can Immigration Reform Work?

A father of immigrants has a few practical questions.

May 22, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 34 • By LAWRENCE B. LINDSEY
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LIKE EVERYONE ELSE IN AMERICA, I am the biological product of a variety of waves of immigration to this continent, including some pretty early ones. Some of my ancestors were the first Europeans to cross the Hudson River from New Amsterdam and settle in the wilds of what is now New Jersey. But more relevant to today's immigration debate is that I am also the father of three immigrants to America who came here as infants or toddlers.

That naturally makes me a supporter of immigration. It also favorably disposes me to "comprehensive" immigration reform of the kind the president supports. The great majority of immigrants (legal and illegal) come here to work hard and make a better life for themselves. Moreover, the "send them home" alternative is highly impractical, even if most of its advocates are well meaning. But my firsthand experience with the immigration process for my children suggests that the pro-reform camp inside the Beltway has focused exclusively on getting legislation passed, and forgotten about the practical realities of implementing reform.

Government has never been known as an efficient agent of change. Twenty years ago we had an immigration reform that provided amnesty and was supposed to solve our immigration problem. But that last reform failed, as vividly demonstrated by millions of people in the streets waving the flags of their nations of origin, and scores of Minutemen sitting in lawn chairs on the border armed with radios to report illegals. And the costs of the failure to the social fabric are real. They include increased polarization over the immigration issue that will only deepen if nothing is done. Frankly, we can't afford another failure of government implementation. So, it is important to consider some practical realities that are now being ignored.

The front lines of immigration policy implementation are America's consulates in large cities around the world. Long before sunrise, queues form at these offices to apply for entry into America. The "entry window" to the office for an interview is often quite short, maybe two or three hours. If you're not in line early enough to get a number that allows you to have an interview that day, you're out of luck. The interview may well be one of several, even if you only want to go to America for a "visit."

If you wave an American passport (as I did), you get to go into a second, much shorter, line and, usually, an indoor waiting room, away from the rain, heat, or cold. If you've done your homework, or someone has done it for you, you have a prearranged appointment, so the wait isn't too long. That is particularly helpful if, say, you're bouncing a one-year-old on your knee.

The consular officials are generally pleasant (at least to American citizens), but they are part of a process designed to be fairly tough in order to prevent people from entering America under false pretenses. For example, in the case of an adopted foreign orphan, it may be obvious that the baby can't answer questions, but the baby still has to be presented (along with tons of paperwork) to prove he or she is a real person. Our experience was relatively painless, in large part because we'd dotted the proverbial i's and crossed the proverbial t's before showing up. But, if your paperwork is not in order, it can take weeks or months, a long time if you're living in a foreign hotel room with an infant.

If you're not a citizen, the lines are longer, and the rules are tougher. The job of the consular officials is to make sure that those applying to visit don't stay, and that those applying to stay meet all of the requirements that Congress has passed. One Bulgarian couple we know wanted to visit their son who was going to school in America. After several visits to the consulate, the U.S. official decided to let the mother visit, but the father had to stay behind, in large part to ensure the mother's return to Bulgaria.

Those applying to come for good face a higher hurdle. At present, there are hundreds of thousands of people around the world who are waiting to immigrate legally to America. They have already waited in line to get their first appointment, then to submit the paperwork, then been called back to answer more questions. And still, they wait. In places like Hong Kong, the waiting time may be as long as 15 years. Most of these people have relatives--cousins or grandchildren, for example--who live and work and pay taxes in America and even have become American citizens.

While the process isn't pretty, there is no good alternative. Permission to reside in America is very valuable. Even permission to visit is, for many people, the opportunity of a lifetime. Unlike some nations--Canada, for example--we do not "sell" residency to people who promise to bring in investment money and create jobs. As economists would say, if you're not going to ration by price, you're going to ration by queue.