It's been a very long time since U.S. politicians addressed illegal immigration in anything approaching a comprehensive way. President Bush came into office planning to change that through negotiations with Mexico and new legislation. Those plans got derailed by 9-11, but last week the President put illegal immigration back on the policy front burner with a major policy address.
The reactions across the political spectrum were predictable but still disappointing. The extreme left dismissed President Bush's plan as an effort to revive the controversial post-World War II bracero program. The Democratic presidential candidates mostly supported the idea of immigration reform, while claiming they would do it better, fairer, or whatever. And, not surprisingly, many voices on the right condemned the plan as an amnesty that will encourage even more illegal immigration. The National Review Online's Corner blog, to cite a particularly prominent example, has been dominated by vehement attacks on Bush's plan, such as Rich Lowry's call for "conservatives [to] go to the mattresses on this one."
Granted, the devil is in the details, but the broad outline set out by President Bush deserves praise rather than censure. The plan is good for the economy. It will contribute to our national security. It will address pressing humanitarian problems posed by the current system.
The President's plan rewards work -- matching "willing workers" with "willing employers." Only those undocumented workers with jobs will be eligible. If there are freeloading illegal immigrants sponging off the welfare state, as some of the more extreme voices on the right claim, this plan does nothing for such immigrants.
Employers will benefit because they will be able to fill low-wage jobs without having to break the law or worry about the INS raiding them. The President's critics complain, however, that illegal immigrants take jobs away from U.S. workers or, at the very least, drive down wages for unskilled labor to levels US workers will not accept. This argument is just plain wrong. First, the President's plan expressly provides that employers must make reasonable efforts to find an American to fill a job vacancy before hiring a foreign worker. Second, a comprehensive recent review of empirical studies reports that the "near uniform finding is that immigration has, at most, a small negative effect on wages" in the United States. Finally, even if immigration did drive down domestic wages, the money saved by employers would not go up in smoke. Instead, it would be invested in other places and ways, contributing to overall economic growth.
Another economic benefit will follow from moving more undocumented workers out of the shadow economy. Many undocumented workers already pay substantial amounts in taxes. Regularizing their status will make it even easier to collect taxes from them, so that they can help pay for the social services they use.
The economic benefits will not be limited to the United States. The President's plan is intended to create incentives for guest workers to return to their home countries. Guest workers will be able to build up savings here through social security contributions and maybe even tax-sheltered savings plans that they can then draw on when they go home. It's not too hard to imagine a guest worker building up a nest egg here and then going home to start a business.
The potential to funnel economic benefits back to guest workers' home countries is critical to solving the problem of illegal immigration in the long-term. There is considerable evidence that the rate of illegal immigration is directly correlated with wages in Mexico. Repatriating guest workers' wages and savings to their home countries thus may be the best way of reducing the rate of illegal immigration.
In addition to the economic benefits, the President's plan should help promote national security. Regularizing undocumented workers will help Homeland Security get a better handle on who is in the country and where they are.
Finally, creating a workable guest worker program is the humanitarian thing to do. The border crossing has become quite hazardous. Once they make it here, illegal immigrants are highly vulnerable to exploitation by unscrupulous employers. Our current national policy is to avert our eyes from the ways in which border coyotes and sweatshop operators exploit illegal immigrants. Providing a legal route to enter and leave the country will alleviate the crisis along the border. In addition, once they are here, regularized workers will be more likely to get the protections of labor and safety laws. The President's plan would have us emulate the Good Samaritan rather than the priest and the Levite of the parable, which strikes me as sound conservative policy.
Bush' critics on the right complain that the plan is an amnesty that rewards law breaking. This seems to particularly gall conservatives such as National Review's John Derbyshire, a legal immigrant: "Most native-born Americans have no idea what you, and anyone desiring to employ you, have to go through to accomplish a legal immigration. When you have wrestled with that beast, the idea of handing out Green Cards to people who sauntered across the border on spec just seems grossly unjust."
I'm not unsympathetic to those who feel like they had to wait in line only to see illegal immigrants cut the line. Derbyshire's criticism, however, misrepresents the President's plan. The plan in fact acknowledges that undocumented workers are here illegally. There is no blanket amnesty. Linda Chavez predicts that the final plan will be limited to those undocumented workers who can show that they have been working continuously, paid taxes, and not broken other laws. Those who participate may even have to pay a small fine. Finally, nothing in the President's proposal contemplates "handing out Green Cards." The President's plan explicitly states: "Some temporary workers will want to remain in America and pursue citizenship. They should not receive an unfair advantage over those who have followed the law, and they will need to be placed in line for citizenship behind those who are already in line. Those who choose the path of citizenship will have an obligation to learn the facts and ideals that have shaped America's history." In short, illegal immigrants will get no preference for green cards.
In any event, what else would the critics have us do? There are somewhere between 8 and 12 million undocumented aliens in the U.S. At least three quarters of a million more arrive each year. Stepped up border enforcement hasn't stopped people from coming to this country. It just made it harder, forcing them to try more hazardous routes and to rely on exploitative smugglers. If people are willing to die to come work in this country, how are we going to close our borders -- let alone deport all the undocumented aliens who are already here -- without becoming a de facto police state?
"All That We Can Expect..."
Our current immigration policy is badly broken. It has failed to stop illegal immigration, succeeding only in creating a shadow economy and a humanitarian crisis along the border.
In fixing our immigration system, conservatives should take heed of Russell Kirk's famous dictum that conservatives are wary "of 'sophisters, calculators, and economists' who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs." Instead, as Kirk explained: "All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk." President Bush has come forward with a pragmatic and realistic proposal that will enhance orderliness, justice, and freedom. Instead, it is his critics on the right who are pursuing the utopian dream that we can deport and deter all illegal immigrants.