The immigration problem gets bigger
In the halls of power, everyone seems to agree that nothing can or should be done about illegal immigration. They're wrong.

he Center for American Progress, headed by former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, has become the hottest Democratic think tank in a Democratic town.

Consider it an early warning signal of liberal assaults to come: While President Obama is directing the current battle, CAP is massing over the horizon for the next.

On June 3, Podesta joined a press conference with labor and ethnic leaders to launch a big new push toward further relaxation of America's immigration laws—or, to borrow Podesta's language, to "drive progressive change on one of the most pressing issues facing our country today."

Immigration is a strange subject. It's intensely controversial and yet—unlike health-care reform or Guantánamo or Mideast policy—there is remarkably little disagreement over basic facts.

Immigration confers a very small net benefit on the U.S. economy overall—there's not much dispute about that. That small net benefit is aggregated from a very large benefit to certain constituencies (primarily the immigrants themselves, but also upper-income earners and owners of capital assets) and a very large harm to other constituencies (primarily less-skilled, native-born workers).

At the same time, current policies impose very large burdens on taxpayers, especially state and local taxpayers. Immigrants, being mostly low-paid, pay relatively little in taxes. They are, however, heavy consumers of health services, education services, roads and prisons. It's been authoritatively estimated that current immigration policies cost every California household about $1,200 per year in higher state spending.

Nor is there much disagreement that current policy allows longer-term problems to fester. The largest single group of immigrants to the U.S. comes from Mexico. While first-generation immigrants work very hard, second-generation immigrants manifest all kinds of ominous behaviors: very high out-of-wedlock birthrates, low high-school completion rates, and—increasingly—disturbing rates of crime. Even third- and fourth-generation Mexican immigrants attain surprisingly low educational levels

Above all, it is current immigration policies that have caused the Education Testing Service—the authors of the SAT—to predict that the American workforce of 2030 will be less literate and less skilled than the workforce of 2000.

As I said, there is not much dispute about these facts. If asked, John Podesta himself would have to acknowledge them.

Happily for him, however, he can be confident he will not be asked. For if there is not much debate about immigration facts, there is equally little debate about immigration policy. Yes, there is fulmination on talk radio. But in the halls of power, everybody from Sen. Ted Kennedy to Sen. John McCain tacitly or explicitly agrees that the situation cannot be fixed and thus the only thing to do is continue on our current path. It's really very striking that the Center for American Progress' "progressive" immigration plan matches almost exactly the "compassionate conservative" approach advanced by President George W. Bush in 2001, 2005, and 2006: Both include a guest worker program, an amnesty in all but name, and a promise of better future enforcement of immigration laws and labor standards.

It is as if nobody can imagine an alternative to McCain-Kennedy-Bush-Podesta. Well I can. Imagine this:

We should require all employers of any business of any appreciable size to use the government's new and effective E-Verify program to check the work status of employees.

We should institute aggressive fines for employment of illegals. The maximum fine for even multiple violations of hiring illegal aliens was raised in 2008 to $16,000. By contrast, violations of the Clean Water Act can be fined up to $125,000 per offense per day. Plus, in immigration cases the government must prove the offender "knowingly" violated the law, generally an impossible standard. With environmental laws, by contrast, offenders are strictly liable: if you pollute, you pay, even if you say you had no idea the sewage was leaking. It's your job to know—and so it should be with immigration laws.

Then beyond that—do nothing.

Don't build a border fence: It will trigger prolonged environmental litigation, cost tens of billions of dollars, take a decade to complete, and poison relations with Mexico. In addition, it ignores the problem of visa over-stays—people who arrived legally in the first place but failed to return home when their visas expired—which are responsible for one-quarter of the illegal population. (The 9/11 hijackers, for example, all entered the United States legally—but five of them had fallen out of legal status at the time of the attack.)

Don't grant amnesty by any name or form to the existing illegal population. In this economic crisis, they are returning home to Mexico in large numbers. In the first quarter of 2009, more Mexicans returned to Mexico from the U.S. than entered the U.S. from Mexico—net outmigration. Blogger Mickey Kaus points out that enrollment in Los Angeles schools has dropped 7 percent since 2003, again very likely because of outmigration.

Through the first decade of the 2000s, illegal immigrants arrived in the U.S. at a rate of perhaps 750,000 per year. In other words, 750,000 of an estimated 12 million illegals have been present in the U.S. for less than 12 months! Maybe a million and a half have been in the country for less than 24 months. These people do not have deep roots in the U.S., and under a regime of more effective enforcement, many will voluntarily repatriate themselves.

On the other hand, many illegals probably will stay. Their children born on U.S. soil will be citizens. Those illegals who do not return home under pressure of stricter enforcement will either find a way to regularize their living and work arrangements (typically through marriage) or else will carry on living more or less as they do now. That's not an intolerable outcome for them—they will have chosen it—and it is less bad for the U.S. than an amnesty that will only invite more illegal immigration. If the illegal flow can be blocked by more effective enforcement, the passage of time will resolve the problems caused by the presence of a residual illegal population.

Don't raise total immigration numbers. Because U.S. law favors relatives of recent immigrants over all other categories, the legal immigrant population shares many of the characteristics of the illegal population: low levels of skill and education. For that reason, it would be wise to tilt the balance of immigration policy in favor of more highly skilled immigrants, as Canada and Australia successfully do. Failing that, the current rate of legal immigration is too high.

Finally: Don't make unfulfillable promises to America's Latino minority. Most of the survey data we have suggests that immigration is actually a relatively low priority for Hispanic citizens (as compared with professional activists). However, Hispanics, like anybody, will understandably resent having a benefit offered and then snatched away. A large majority of Americans reject the Bush-Kennedy-McCain-Podesta approach to immigration. It probably cannot pass Congress. But the passions triggered in such a debate could well alienate Hispanic Americans from the American mainstream for a generation or more.

It is important to all Americans that Hispanics settle into their new American identity and loyalty—that they become a typical American ethnic group, interblended with others, as the Germans, Irish, Italians, Poles, and many others have done before them. It is vitally important that Hispanic Americans overcome their social problems, stabilize their families, improve their educational levels, and accumulate assets to catch up to the native-born. That will take time, probably multiple generations, and it will not be easy.

The current approach to immigration follows one of Donald Rumsfeld's famous maxims: "If you cannot solve a problem, make it bigger." Turns out, that's not a very good maxim. Let's try something different.



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