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Law and Borders

From the February 28, 2005 issue: The conservative case for Bush's immigration plan.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By TAMAR JACOBY
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THE PRESIDENT'S REPUBLICAN OPPONENTS often put their case as a rhetorical question--"What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?"--and the gibe hits home, not necessarily because of what it says about the Bush solution, but because it so accurately diagnoses what's wrong with the existing system. Our immigration system is indeed based on illegality--on a long-standing and all but deliberate mismatch between the size of our yearly quotas and the actual needs of our labor market, particularly at the lower reaches of the job ladder. This mismatch has often been convenient for employers--it provides a docile, disposable foreign labor force--and it has been the norm in agriculture off and on for nearly a hundred years. But in recent decades, new technologies have spurred demand for low-skilled workers in a wide range of other sectors as well, and the public, quite understandably, is beginning to find the hypocrisy intolerable.

As the president's critics understand, this is a large part of what is driving voters' concerns about immigration. People don't like the idea of 10 to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States but outside the law. They're appalled that entire American industries--not just agriculture, but hospitality, food processing, construction--operate on the wrong side of the rules, relying on the black market to find the labor they need just to keep their businesses open. The very idea of this second, illegal America is an affront, its practical consequences even more troubling: not just criminal syndicates that thrive on lawlessness, but also the haven it creates for potential terrorists. And the public is right: If routine illegality is the price of immigration, it's too high a price to pay--even if the newcomers are good for the economy.

So the critics' diagnosis is not far from the mark. But the question is what to do about this other, illegal America--and the fact is that the president has the best idea, arguably the only idea that can possibly work. Many of his critics believe that the answer is to turn off the immigrant influx. We should, they say, make the necessary economic adjustments and do without the imported labor. It's an option; with enough resources, we probably could stop the flow. But are the American people prepared for the changes that would come with that decision? The likely economic sacrifice is incalculable: not just a few extra pennies on the cost of lettuce, but forfeited growth all across the economy, on a vast scale. In many industries today, growth depends on foreign laborers, who filled one in every two new jobs created in recent years. Then there would be the cost of enforcement--a cost in dollars but also in the way we live. Just ask experienced agents like Lee Morgan: Cutting off illegal immigration would require thousands more men on the border, routine sweeps in every city, roadblocks, roundups, massive deportations, a national ID card, and more.

The president has a better solution. He proposes that we face up to the reality of our growing demand for labor, skilled and unskilled. His outline is still just that--an outline--and he is likely to leave it to Congress to fill in the details: to devise a way to match foreign workers with American employers, to make sure American laborers aren't undercut in the process, to design a method for monitoring employers and punishing those who don't comply, and so on. But the White House has nailed down the all-important central principle: If we raise our quotas to make them more commensurate with the existing flow of foreign workers, we can reap the benefits of immigration without the illegality that currently comes with it.

A new, more realistic policy would be much easier to enforce. The best analogy is Prohibition: Unrealistic law is extremely difficult to make stick. Realistic limits are another thing entirely. We can have robust immigration and the rule of law too--if, instead of wishing away the influx, we acknowledge reality, then find a smarter, more practical way to manage it. And that is exactly what the president proposes we do through his guest worker program. The idea is not to expand the total number of immigrants who enter the country each year, merely to provide those who are coming anyway--and would otherwise come illegally--with a safe, orderly, legal route. Assuming it works--assuming, as the White House does, that once most jobs are filled by authorized immigrants, there will be little incentive for others to come illegally--it's a simple, pragmatic solution, and that in itself should recommend it to conservatives.