Published in the Financial Times, April 6, 2006
"Immigration ideas bordering on perverse"
The immigration fight in Congress is shaping up as an epic battle of bad ideas. On one side is the House Alamo caucus, which in December passed a bill that is impractical and gratuitously cruel. It would turn being in the US without a valid visa into an "aggravated" felony, make it a crime for Good Samaritans and even family members to help illegal immigrants and erect a 700-mile-long fence that would turn the southern border into a demilitarised zone.
This nationalist, punitive approach cuts against America's immigrant tradition, its humane values and its economic needs. Slamming the gates shut would further damage our image in the world and especially relations with our Mexican neighbours, who for some reason think it rude of us to want to decorate our shared property line with a concrete wall topped with razor wire and guard towers.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the bill sponsored by senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain, which last week passed the Senate judiciary committee. It would let the estimated 12m illegal residents of the US achieve full citizenship, grant an additional 400,000 green cards per year, create a programme for agricultural "guest workers" and tighten border security. With the exception of the extra green cards, these are lousy ideas too. The amnesty offer would reward those who jumped the queue (as the last amnesty did), while penalising those who have waited patiently for legal visas. As for the "guest worker" provision, a pet idea of President George W. Bush, it feels exploitative and un-American to allow migrants in without giving them a shot at becoming citizens. And stepped-up border enforcement has a terrible record as well. As Douglas Massey, the Princeton sociologist, argues, an enormous increase in border spending in the past two decades has been counterproductive, perversely resulting in more illegal migrants getting into the US from Mexico, more of them dying on the journey, and fewer of them ever going back.
What is more, these two approaches are incompatible. You cannot crack down on illegal immigration and liberalise it at the same time. The kind of split-the-difference compromise that is likely to result from a House-Senate-White House negotiation would surely be futile and wasteful. You can already see the outlines of another domestic policy disaster emerging: Mr. Bush will sign a law that threatens toughness but declines to apply it, a law that costs billions to administer but fails to reduce illegal immigration, while creating massive new bureaucratic and legal headaches. This would be in keeping with past efforts, such as the big 1986 immigration reform bill, which promised serious sanctions against employers of illegals, but has never been enforced and has produced results the opposite of those intended.
As a bold alternative, why not pass no immigration bill? The status quo of American immigration is certainly flawed. Current policy turns a blind eye to widespread lawbreaking and, as Martin Wolf noted on this page yesterday, drives down low-end wages and exacerbates inequality. On the other hand, the system works in its own way. The most tenacious and enterprising immigrants, who are therefore the most economically desirable, find a way around the barriers. Once here, they help the economy sustain a high rate of growth and subsidise America's social security system. In return, those who choose to stay have a chance to create better lives for their children.
America has always tolerated such flawed but functional arrangements when it comes to immigration. The country was built by people who did not wait for engraved invitations. New arrivals draw inevitable hostility from native-born workers with whom they compete for jobs, even though the native-born can often recall an immigrant family saga themselves. As a result, the national attitude toward immigration remains marked by ambivalence. We need their muscle. We admire their pluck and sacrifice. At the same time, we object to having to compete with them, we resent their differences and we doubt their commitment to our values. America's immigration policies will never be fully rational because feelings about a process so central to the American experience will always contain an element of contradiction.
That is not to say that the US cannot improve its immigration policy. Recognising that globalisation means traffic in labour as well as in capital and goods, we should provide many more legal work visas and green cards, especially for high-tech workers, who drive the most innovative sector of the American economy. Employers who knowingly hire illegal workers should suffer the consequences under existing, but ignored, laws. This is the one step that would make it more difficult for illegal migrants to find work in the US and address the queue-jumping issue much more effectively than tighter border security.
What we do not need is a big reform bill. Even in all-Republican Washington, there remains a strong tendency to measure success on the basis of how much massive federal legislation can be shovelled out the door. With the ineffetual No Child Left Behind education bill and the massively confusing and wasteful Medicare prescription drug bill, the Bush-era tally stands at two big social policy fiascos. In the coming months, the president and Congress have an opportunity to avoid adding a third.