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Bumps Along the Path to Citizenship

Put not your faith in federal bureaucracies.

Feb 25, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 23 • By PETER SKERRY
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The overarching question is whether the tax proceeds to be collected from low-income, unskilled workers would exceed the costs of securing those taxes. It would be a nightmare, for example, to reconstruct work histories in the informal sector where the undocumented typically labor. Even Steven Camarota, research director of the restrictionist-oriented Center for Immigration Studies, concludes that “this is not a provision to generate income, it is a provision to create the illusion of toughness the public likes.”

The irony is that as Republican lawmakers attempt to respond to popular outrage about illegal immigration, they turn to procedures and agencies that their constituents typically—and justifiably—distrust. Put another way, Republican immigration reformers are relying heavily on an administrative state whose routine functioning is the source of much of the disaffection with government on which their party’s political success has been based.

When it comes to immigration policy, popular skepticism is not misguided. Americans’ diffuse anxiety about illegal immigration is no match for the narrower, well-organized immigrant advocates who will be litigating in the federal courts, plying the halls of Congress and the agencies, and working the media long after voters have focused on some other issue. Americans may not be able to articulate this scenario, but they feel in their bones that something is wrong when their elected representatives in Washington resort to such complicated schemes.

There is no silver bullet here. Given the institutional context within which Republicans must function, there is no avoiding such dilemmas. But Republicans must manage them skillfully and avoid alienating their base as they struggle to address immigration more responsibly than they have in the recent past.

My own view is that Republicans must keep their immigration proposals tough, fair, and simple. This is why I have argued for awarding illegals permanent noncitizen resident status—with no option ever of naturalizing. Such an approach would deliver up front a clear and decisive penalty to illegals and avoid -complicated schemes designed to elicit remorse, levy fines, and extract back taxes. Meanwhile, illegal immigrants would receive what I believe most of them really seek—the ability to live and work in America without fear of arrest and deportation. Now that’s simple!

Peter Skerry teaches political science at Boston College and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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