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The case for inaction on immigration
Democrats are preparing yet another comprehensive immigration reform. Just say No.
 
David Frum
David Frum

On Tuesday, 80 House members unveiled a new immigration amnesty proposal. The bill, written by Illinois congressman Luis Gutierrez, would put illegals on the road to citizenship.
 
The Gutierrez bill is too permissive to get very far: It grants amnesty to any employed illegal alien provided the alien has not been convicted of a crime and pays a $500 fine. But that’s just an overture to the big action in 2010. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has pledged to deliver an administration amnesty bill in the new year.
 
It’s not hard to guess what that bill will look like. It will contain all kinds of tough-sounding but unenforceable provisions: background checks to catch crooks and scofflaws; civics lessons to instill Americanism in this generation’s Hyman Kaplans; touchbacks to compel aliens to return briefly home before receiving their new residency permits. But the bottom line will be exactly the same as the Gutierrez bill: Almost all illegal aliens currently in the country will be invited to stay.
 
It’s remarkable: For all the intense controversy generated by immigration, the actual legislation that emerges from one Congress to another looks almost exactly the same. Obama’s bill will reiterate in almost every particular the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006, which in turn recapitulated the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005, and so on back through the archives to the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986, which actually granted amnesty to some three million illegals.
 
These proposals inevitably combine three (sometimes four) main ideas:
 
(1) Amnesty (or the new favored euphemism: "earned citizenship");
(2) A provision that can be represented to voters as punishment for past violations of immigration laws, such as fines, "going to the back of the line" etc.;
(3) Promises of stricter enforcement of the laws;
(4) Sometimes a guest worker program.
 
But the punishments never amount to much and the stricter enforcement never materializes; only the amnesty is real. And that amnesty, in turn, invites more illegal immigrants across the border with hopes of benefiting from the next amnesty.
 
Earlier this year, I joined a foundation-sponsored panel on immigration. Sure enough, our group dynamics quickly settled upon the four elements above. I dissented, and was challenged to propose an alternative. Here it is:
 
Do nothing.
 
Okay, not literally nothing. Just nothing new.
 
The economic crisis that struck in 2008 has slowed the flow of new illegals and prompted many existing illegals to return home. The enrollment of Spanish-speaking students in U.S. schools has declined, day labor sites are emptying, even the audience for Spanish-language radio has abruptly plummeted.
 
By some estimates, the population of illegals may have shrunk by almost two million since 2007. Even if that estimate errs on the high side, the trends are clearly positive—and can be accelerated.
 
Electronic verification systems are spreading through the American workforce. Ten percent of employers now use them to document workers. In addition, local law enforcement officials are cooperating more closely with the new federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency. In 2008, local police arrested more than 45,000 criminal aliens.
 
By making better policy in the future, we can buttress these gains. Federal stimulus spending does not require e-verification of work status. It could have and should have. The new health-care bill should prohibit illegals from purchasing insurance on new insurance exchanges—and require health-care providers who benefit from government money to verify the status of their workers.
 
By making illegal employment more difficult—and deportation more certain for criminal aliens—we can encourage current illegals to depart and discourage others from ever arriving.
 
Of course, enforcement will not reduce the illegal population to zero. Perhaps over half a decade we might drive the number down by a quarter, a third, conceivably even half—but unlikely more. What then?

That’s where the "nothing" part of the plan kicks in.
 
Those illegals who remain in the U.S. because they have formed deep attachments here —a stable job, home ownership, children—will remain exactly as they are now. They may legalize themselves through marriage or sponsorship by a citizen relative. Or the passage of time will remove them, as it removes us all, and their U.S.-born children will grow up as lawful citizens.
 
Yes, their lives will be uncertain—that’s the point. They signed up for that uncertainty, and the costs to society of alleviating that uncertainty are very great—including the creation of new incentives for further illegal migration.
 
If the Obama administration succeeds in enacting an amnesty, the illegal problem will revive and expand as soon as the economy recovers. If we do nothing—save enforcement—the illegal problem will dwindle over coming decades.

This is one of those rare occasions where statesmanship coincides with the classic advice to the risk-averse politician: Don’t just do something—stand there.

 

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