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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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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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