The Magazine

The Perils of Reform

Our immigration system can be fixed, but Republicans should aim for better policies, not better pandering

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By IRWIN M. STELZER
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Put vote-getting ahead of policy. Then conflate and aggregate. That’s all you have to do to make a mess of immigration reform. Which is what our political class seems determined to do. 

Marco Antonio Rubio

Although the details of reform legislation have yet to be worked out, the broad contours of the deal can be seen through the rhetorical haze that passes for political debate. Illegal immigrants will be granted probationary legal residence and the right to work if they have avoided any crimes other than crossing our border without permission. This amnesty will be followed by permanent residence, the first step on a path to citizenship, but only after a board of governors, state attorneys general, and notables from border states testifies that the border has been secured. These probationary guests are to be denied access to Obamacare and other public assistance and will eventually have to pay back taxes when applying for citizenship.

There you have it. Sounds reasonable enough, with great appeal to the generosity of most Americans, many acquainted with some of these immigrants, whom they know to be hardworking. And to politicians in a bidding war for the votes of these citizens-to-be and, until then, of American citizens of Hispanic origin.

There is no denying that current policy needs fixing: As John McCain once told an insistent deport-them-all advocate at a small meeting in our living room, “Lady, we don’t have 11 million pairs of handcuffs in America.” Not only is mass deportation infeasible, it would be inhumane. More inhumane even than leaving 11 million people​—​12 million according to Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, or is it 15 million as many of my Colorado neighbors contend?​—​to struggle along in some zone between illegality and de facto acceptance. As the president is fond of saying, “There is work to be done.”

This is no easy chore. Emotions run high, not only among the illegal immigrants but among politicians who are in a bidding war for the favor of a voting bloc that is large and growing larger. So far, game, set, and match to the Democrats, who corralled some 70 percent of Latino voters in the recent elections, in part with promises of college and work permits for their kids​—​no legislation necessary, as the president exercised “prosecutorial discretion” on a massive scale. Now, a frightened batch of Republicans who once took a dim view of illegal border-crossing has entered the bidding in the hope of wooing this bloc to their banner.

Why they think this is possible is difficult to understand. Yes, many of these largely Hispanic illegal immigrants are socially conservative​—​they attend church, buy homes, start small businesses, and work hard, with over 90 percent of adult men in the labor market according to Pia Orrenius and Madeline Zavodny, economists at the Dallas Fed and Agnes Scott College, respectively. Those characteristics, argue conservative analysts in a display of the triumph of hope over experience, make them natural conservative voters. Alas, not so. There is another group that works hard, starts businesses, and should find the don’t-overtax-the-rich mantra of Republicans attractive: Jews. But they identify with the underdog, even now, and see WASPy Republicans as less likely to understand them. Why Republicans think illegal immigrants, having trod the winding path to citizenship, will be any easier pickings than Jewish voters, I don’t know. Surely, a better strategy than entering a bidding match against masters of that art would be to support sensible policies and compete for the great mass of voters on the basis of superior policymaking rather than superior pandering.

That requires avoiding the twin perils of conflation and aggregation. Start with the error of conflating the need to do something about the status of illegals with providing them a path to citizenship. Many people who understand the desirability of giving these illegals some sort of stable life don’t understand why that goal requires a path to citizenship for people who have jumped the queue. Granting legal status to these millions so that they might enjoy a more decent existence is one thing. Granting them the right to vote and to participate in the determination of the policies, domestic and foreign, of a nation they have entered illegally is quite another. Those who arrived as children, illegally but involuntarily, have a reasonable claim to more generous treatment. If recollection serves there is something in our tradition about not visiting the sins of the fathers on their sons. Arguably, creating a path to citizenship for this second generation is not a reward for illegal behavior, as it would be in the case of their parents. And, unlike their parents, this group will be proficient in the English language, as we define proficiency these days.

Their parents, however, have no claim that demands conflating the grant of a more secure status with citizenship. The British grant many people, this writer included, “indefinite leave to remain,” which conveys the right of residence and freedom to find work, but not citizenship. Such a status might be a model for reform of our treatment of illegal immigrants. But do not for one moment believe that the millions with their residence “regularized” can be barred from the use of public services, a provision some would include in the immigration reform legislation. Teachers are not going to turn away such students, doctors are not going to refuse them care when they present themselves at hospitals in an emergency, police are not going to tell any who become crime victims that their assailants will not be pursued. Give them the right of residence, and you are effectively giving them access to the same public services to which citizens are entitled.

Having avoided the error of conflation, then disaggregate. The 11 million are not a homogeneous group. Everyone knows that, but the president and his party see their chances of getting the mass of the 11 million on the path to voterhood maximized by lumping millions of unskilled non-English speakers, nearly two-thirds of whom have never graduated from high school, with engineers who entered the country legally and received their advanced degrees here. That is why the president has warned Republicans “not to pull this thing apart,” and the Democratic leadership in the Senate is insisting on a comprehensive bill​—​the sort preferred by Nancy Pelosi, whose idea of good policy is not to find out what is in a bill until after you pass it.

Avoiding this politically inspired aggregation is one of the keys to sensible policy. A guest worker program will take care of the needs of those who come for seasonal work: There is no need to issue permits that extend beyond the season or period in which those needs exist. Some will, of course, not go home and will overstay their visas. But far fewer than would were the amnesty granted the 11 million to include a path to citizenship. At the other end of the labor market, the highly trained and highly skilled can be granted both indefinite leave to remain and a path to citizenship, on the general theory that they will over their lifetimes provide a net benefit to the American economy and are more rather than less likely to learn English and otherwise assimilate. How many? Let employers bid for visas, rather than doling the bulk of them out for family reunification, and use the funds to offset some of the social costs imposed on communities with high percentages of immigrants. 

After all, it is employer groups that are clamoring for more visas for these sorts of immigrants, whom they prefer to hire rather than the trained Americans available in ample supply, if data compiled by Ross Eisenbrey of the Economic Policy Institute (“America’s Genius Glut,” New York Times, February 8) are to be believed. I have not attempted to decide whether the EPI data or the view of Caterpillar’s chief technology officer Gwenne Hendricks that we “need to have access to the best skills in higher volumes than we can access just out of the North American market” more closely represents reality. But even if Hendricks is correct that such home-grown talents are not now available, it is unclear why increasing compensation for these skilled positions, rather than holding the line on pay by importing talent, would not increase the domestic supply in the long run. Which may be why the Silicon Valley CEOs are pressing so hard for comprehensive reform, without which “the odds of high-skilled [legislation] passing .  .  . is close to zero,” according to Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. 

Consider the analogy of the law business. When it was booming and compensation was rising, students flocked to law schools. Now that the bloom is off that rose, and law firms are either not hiring or keeping compensation under control, law-school enrollment is plummeting, so much so that some schools are threatened with closure. The price system works, in labor markets as well as in the markets for goods and services.

Then there is the great mass of the illegals. These people should be allowed to stay, out of the shadows. In part because this is the humane thing to do, in part because we have no feasible way of deporting them, and in part because with few exceptions they are hardworking, granting the right to remain is worth the risk that it will encourage a new wave of illegal immigration. And that risk is far from trivial. After all, it would not be irrational for a prospective illegal entrant to believe that just as Reagan granted amnesty to 2.7 million in 1986, and we are now considering granting amnesty with a path to citizenship to 11 million, some day he or she will receive a similar blessing. Yes, the current amnesty is advertised as “probationary.” But there is no conceivable circumstance under which the passage from probation to permanent residence to citizenship would be halted, unless the politicians in charge of determining whether the porosity of the border has been reduced declare that effort a failure. Anyone who believes that a group of vote-seeking politicians would risk antagonizing millions of potential voters might usefully spend his time bidding for a bridge in Brooklyn. And anyone who hopes that the Democrats among these judges will call a halt to the probationary millions’ march to citizenship by declaring our borders insecure is doomed to disappointment.

After all, were it not for our tough job market and a mini-boom in Mexico, the flow of immigration would not have receded in recent years. As Senator Marco Rubio pointed out in his response to last week’s State of the Union address, the history of border controls is a history of “broken promises .  .  . to secure our borders and enforce our laws.” Last week Chris Crane, president of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents’ union, told a congressional committee, “We are under orders” not to enforce the law, and Michael Teitelbaum, former member of the Barbara Jordan Commission on Immigration Reform, has testified that there have been no “serious efforts” to control illegal immigration.


 

This error of aggregation also applies to the cost-benefit studies that prove, or fail to prove, that immigration reform would be a net economic plus for the country as a whole. Whatever the balance of total costs and total benefits, disaggregation will reveal that the beneficiaries of immigration are very different from those who bear its costs.

  Owners of large lawns and swimming pools quite naturally favor an increase in the supply of labor available to tend these suburban amenities; Americans who mow lawns, from schoolkids trying to earn a bit towards their education to grownups for whom these chores constitute a decent living if they can command a decent wage, are understandably less enthusiastic about this new, wage-lowering competition.

  Labor union bureaucrats, who lust after the dues that come with new members, benefit from increasing the supply of legal workers who make beds and clean hotel rooms, as do vacationers and business travelers who might see room rates rise if hoteliers had to pay the wages that might prevail if the supply of workers were restricted to legal residents. American workers, including legal immigrants, who could do those jobs, or would do them if wages reflected the available supply of legal residents, bear the cost of the benefits that go to trade union leaders in the form of increased dues, to hoteliers in the form of higher profits, and to more affluent American business travelers and vacationers in the form of lower room rates. Little wonder that union leaders who want more dues-payers oppose guest-worker programs that would legalize immigrants who come to work but plan (or say they plan) to return to their homeland when their work is completed. This itinerant group is notoriously difficult to unionize, whereas, once legalized, car washers and other such unskilled workers would join unions​—​one-fourth of the over two million members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) are Hispanic. “With papers, more of us will want to join the union,” one of the 10,000, mostly illegal, Hispanic carwash workers in Los Angeles told the Wall Street Journal

And the working-class Americans whose children are unchallenged in school owing to the large number of students who do not speak English pay a cost not borne by the Washington political class enthusiastically hunting for policies that will increase the flow of immigrants with still another amnesty, but whose kids attend Sidwell and St. Albans, and who live in school districts in which non-English-speaking students are only a minimal presence.

The mismatch between beneficiaries and those who bear the costs of immigration, ignored by policymakers but not by those who gain and those who lose, cries out for a mechanism by which the beneficiaries share those benefits with the millions of American households and workers adversely affected by immigration.

There you have it. Reform the broken immigration system. Allow the 11 million to “come out of the shadows,” to use a phrase preferred by those who have not noticed that many even now enjoy the sunlight in welcoming cities and communities, but don’t conflate that with a guaranteed path to citizenship. Set their more assimilable youngsters​—​innocent of intentional wrongdoing, and found by a Pew study to be at least as successful as the general population​—​on such a path. Then disaggregate. Legalize guest workers so employers cannot exploit them. Ease the path to permanent residence and citizenship for the highly educated and highly skilled, despite Obama’s opposition to what the White House calls a “narrowly tailored proposal,” with no explanation as to why such focused reforms are undesirable. Arrange for the beneficiaries of the new immigration policy to compensate those who will bear its costs. And by all means avoid one of those 2,000-page bills in which unseen evil lurks.

Irwin M. Stelzer, a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard, is director of economic policy studies at the Hudson Institute and a columnist for the Sunday Times (London).

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