Immigration now, immigration tomorrow, immigration forever: reason's guide to reality-based reform.


AT PRESS TIME in early June, no issue is more heated than immigration reform. As Congress struggles to pass legislation, the debate so far has been characterized by an almost complete lack of reference to history, economics, and basic research on the matter, reason seeks to enrich the discussion, first and foremost by raising the basic question of whether there is, in fact, an immigration crisis to begin with.

We're also happy to illustrate this special section with images from late-19th and early-20th century political magazines such as The Wasp and Judge. These images showcase not just the animus against but also the ambivalence toward new-comers that native-born Americans have long expressed. For more images and purchase information, visit Georgetown Book Shop online at

Bush's Border Bravado

Non-militarized non-solutions to a nonproblem

Nick Gillespie

GIVE PRESIDENT BUSH this much: His 16-minute "major" speech on immigration on May 15 touched on, however briefly, every key issue related to the topic: border control, enforcement, guest worker programs, ID cards, you name it. And in the doublespeak fashion that underpins all political utterance, nothing seemed to mean what it plainly seemed to mean. Or at least imply. Hence, the president is sending 6,000 National Guard troops to keep watch on the Rio Grande, but "The United States Is Not Going To Militarize The Southern Border," says the White House fact sheet on the matter. No way, Jose--because "Mexico is our neighbor and friend" We just don't want our sister to employ one.

In the same vein, Bush made it clear that "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Must Include A Tamper-Resistant Identification Card For Every Legal Foreign Worker So Businesses Can Verify The Legal Status Of Their Employees" But doesn't that mean that all workers--regardless of country of origin or citizenship--will have to show a "tamper-resistant identification card"? Let's leave aside for the moment that there ain't no such thing as a tamper-resistant anything. (California and Florida, for instance, have both experimented with impossible-to-counterfeit driver's licenses and birth certificates, to no avail.) It's a simple fact that anything that applies to immigrants will have to apply to U.S. citizens. (No, no, don't you see--only immigrants will have to show documents showing they are immigrants? Umm ...) And the president "opposes amnesty" but wants a guest-worker program that will let most of the 12 million illegals in the country gain citizenship one way or another. To be fair, the president's confusion is ours as a country: This nation of immigrants has never been particularly comfortable with new arrivals.

How will immigration play out politically over the next few months, especially since the dead heat that American politics has become is more dead than ever? The vast majority of the American people is staunchly in favor of militarizing the Southern border or doing whatever it may take to stop the flow of illegal immigrants from that part of the world. In fact, a plurality of the American people is in favor of reducing the flow of legal immigrants, too. At least for a while. So are the House Republicans,who passed legislation that is long on enforcement and "cutting off the flow" stuff and extremely short on amnesty, guest workers, and the like. A good chunk of Senate Republicans--along with a handful of Democrats--is in favor of less-draconian legislation than House Republicans, including a guest-worker program and, in theory at least, some way of legalizing many, if not most, current illegals. At press time, the Senate had signed on to building some sort of wall. Where any of this might end up is anybody's guess. Especially with mid-term elections coming up, both the Dems and the Reps may want to play to their bases by refusing to "compromise" on their core "principles." There could be worse outcomes.

One thing seems certain. As reason contributing editor and San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carolyn Lochhead notes below, "Many of the most radical changes in the origins and numbers of America's vast flow of immigrants were unintentionally set in motion ... by politicians who expected an entirely different result" (see "A Legacy of the Unforeseen"). That's not a warrant to do nothing, or to assume that all reforms are equally bad or useless or ineffective. But it is a powerful lesson to keep in mind as the country plows forward with major immigration reform, which tends to happen only once about every 20 years.

There's something else to consider, too. It's true that even in non-totalitarian countries, immigration patterns can be massively influenced by government policies. Hence, restrictionist laws ranging from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the Gentleman's Agreement to the Immigration Act of 1924 massively cut immigrant flows from China, Japan, and undesired nations of Europe. So too do large global economic shifts such as the Great Depression, world wars, or the rise to wealth of post-war Europe. But immigration patterns are also largely determined by immigrants themselves, especially when those immigrants live in a country adjacent to the one to which they're heading. President Bush noted that 85 percent of illegals caught at the Southern border are Mexican. It only stands to reason that Mexican immigration into the United States is as much or more a function of Mexico's political and economic situation as it is of ours.

Hence, the flow of migrants is unlikely to be stopped or even slowed much by, as the president put it, "high-tech fences in urban corridors ... new patrol roads and barriers in rural areas" and, relatively speaking, a handful more border patrol agents. As it stands, about 60 percent of illegals enter the country without visas or other documentation, typically via the Mexican and Canadian borders. That also means that 40 percent enter the country through officially sanctioned channels (such as tourist and student visas), which makes them that much more difficult to keep track of.

As important, kindness to today's immigrants in the form of amnesty--er, guest worker programs--regardless of threats to get tough in the future, will inevitably have the effect of ginning up more immigration. Why? Because potential immigrants recognize that such "time inconsistency" clearly signals that we will be lenient to future immigrants despite rhetoric to the contrary. As economist Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute summarizes, "If we are willing to grant amnesty for immigrants today, we will be willing to grant amnesty again five years later." And clearly we are: Virtually no one--and certainly not the president or the Senate--is talking about mass deportations of currently undocumented workers and children.

Which suggests that the president missed a chance to recast the issue in a way that might actually reflect reality. The first thing is to challenge the notion that immigration--legal or illegal--in any way represents a "crisis." And to at least suggest that the North American Free Trade Agreement should apply equally to people as to widgets. As Fox News stalwart Tony Snow wrote just a couple of months before becoming Bush's press secretary, "Immigration is not the pox neo-Know Nothings make it out to be" (see "Where's the Mayhem?"). Far from it. Unemployment is low and crime is down everywhere, but especially in areas teeming with immigrants. Those who worry for whatever reason about languages other than English being spoken in America can rest easy knowing that some 80 percent of Latino households are Spanish-free by the third generation.

Immigration restrictionists argue, not without some merit, that illegal immigrants don't fully pay into the social-welfare system from which they benefit. Restrictionists tend to overstate the effect of illegal immigrants on American wages and they understate the amount of taxes even illegals pay. About two-thirds of illegals pay Medicare, Social Security, and income taxes. All pay sales taxes and property taxes (directly if they own property, or, more likely, indirectly via rents that reflect property taxes). And since 1996, the only public funds illegals can really access are for emergency medical care and primary and secondary education (and only 10 percent of illegals send kids to public schools).

But the most efficient way to address those concerns is by making it easier for illegals to function in the light of day, where they would have every reason to pay all the taxes the rest of us do. And to enter the country through official checkpoints (and to leave the country through the same gates). This isn't just idle guesswork. In October 2005, the National Immigration Forum and the conservative Manhattan Institute surveyed 233 illegal Latino immigrants in Miami, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Fully 98 percent of respondents said they would legalize their status if given the opportunity. (81 percent said they would "live and work in the United States" for the rest of their lives.) Ninety-one percent said they would pay a $1,000 fine to come clean and 96 percent said they would submit to a criminal background check. Seventy percent said they would pay any back taxes they owed as a condition of legalization and 87 percent said they would enroll in an English class. A vanishingly small proportion of illegal immigrants come here to live in the shadows of American prosperity.

Rebutting the concerns of restrictionists doesn't require "not militarizing" the Mexican border and most of the rest of what the president talked about it in May. It's a shame that, given the opportunity to set the legislative agenda on one of the issues that defines the American experience, Bush didn't put a reality-based plan on the table for discussion--just one more wasted opportunity in a tenure filled with them.

reason Editor-in-Chief Nick Gillespie ( is the editor of Choice: The Best of...

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