The least bad option on immigration

I don’t see any good options on immigration policy.

The least bad option is some sort of amnesty and path-to-citizenship program for the more than 10 million illegal migrants estimated to be in the United States, combined with some sort of guest worker program that would allow foreign migrant workers to enter the country temporarily.

The amnesty is a bad option because periodic amnesties make a mockery of immigration laws.  It is in practice not much different from no immigration restrictions at all. If an illegal migrant gets into the country somehow, all the person has to do is to escape detection until the next amnesty.

A guest worker program is questionable because there is no guarantee against repetition of the abuses of guest worker programs in the past.  The workers were at the mercy of their employers, much like the indentured servants in colonial times.

An amnesty / guest worker program is, from my standpoint, bad politically because it drives a wedge into the liberal Democratic political coalition; it sets Hispanics against non-Hispanic blacks and whites, and immigrants against labor union members.  However, it also splits the conservative Republican coalition between nativist anti-immigration militants and employers who want cheap labor.

The argument is sometimes made that the illegal migrants are a net benefit to the United States, because they do work that citizens aren’t willing to do.  Many of them work under conditions citizens wouldn’t be willing to accept, but that’s another matter.  There are an estimated 11.2 million migrants in this country illegally, and at least some of them must be competing for jobs with the more than 13.6 million unemployed American citizens and legal migrants.

An amnesty would be unfair to immigrants and would-be immigrants who have observed U.S. laws, and would see lawbreakers get in line ahead of them.  Nor would it do away entirely with the problem of securing the borders.  So long as there are any limits on immigration at all, there will be people who try to circumvent them.

But even so, it is less bad than the other options, or so it seems to me.  It is less bad than the status quo, which is to have a vast hidden underclass in this country, which is outside the protection of the laws and the Constitution.  It is not just that members of this underclass are exploited themselves.  Their presence helps drive down wages and working conditions of citizens and legal immigrants.

Bringing the migrants out of the shadows would give them the protection of American laws on wages and hours, worker health and safety and the right to organize in unions and bargain collectively.  Bringing them within the law is in the common interest of citizens and migrants.

And a guest worker program would allow the migrants to return home when the economy is bad without having to risk never being able to get back in.  Remittances that migrants send back to Mexico are an important part of the Mexican economy.  Aside from the sympathy we have for Mexicans as human beings, we U.S. citizens would not want to face the consequences of a Mexican economic collapse.

I like the slogan, “A high fence and a wide gate” – meaning a generous program for admitting immigrants legally combined with strict enforcement of laws to keep the others out.

The problem is the high fence. To root out and keep out illegal immigrants would require national laws much more draconian that the controversial Arizona state law.  You could do it a biometric ID on file for every citizen and legal resident, and frequent checks to determine which individuals have a right to be in the United States.  You would have to require employers to screen all job applicants, and hold them criminally responsible if they fail.  You would have to greatly expand the Immigration and Naturalization Service – not a desirable way to reduce the national unemployment rate.

This is not just a problem for the Southwest borderlands.  Upstate New York has an important fruit and vegetable industry that depends on low-wage illegal migrants – or that is what I perceive from the outcries of growers every time the INS raids one of their camps.  The Border Patrol operates freely in Buffalo and Rochester, which are within 60 miles of the U.S. border; they can be found in the bus terminals, checking the ID of any foreign-looking person who gets off the bus.  There is a detention center in Genesee County near the New York Thruway and distant from everything else.  I can see why, given the requirement to enforce existing laws, these things are done, but it smacks of a police state more than I like.

I can see how someone might find my thoughts overly sentimental.  In an earlier post, I reviewed the book, The Death of Josseline, whose title refers to the death of a 14-year-old girl crossing the border from Sonora into Arizona.  But after all, the hundreds of thousands of migrants who cross the border every year might find a few hundred deaths an acceptable risk.  And many 14-year-old girls have died in Iraq and Afghanistan as a byproduct of American efforts to achieve national objectives there.  You could do a cost-benefit analysis – the death of X number of migrants versus reducing their number by Y thousands.

The ultimate solution to the immigration problem would be a high-wage, full-employment economy, in which the laws on wages, hours, health, safety and the right to bargain collectively are enforced, and sound economic development in Mexico and Central America, so that people in that part of the world could earn living wages where they are.  I don’t think these goals are impossible, but I don’t think they will be achieved anytime soon.

Double click to enlarge

Click on The Mexican Connection for a report in The Atlantic on the economic importance of remittances to Mexico by Mexican workers in the United States.

Click on Death along the Arizona border for my earlier post.

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