Immigration Demystified

“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.”

-- F. Scott Fitzgerald

Pity the poor lawmaker. Regardless of party or region, most members of Congress are now confronted with the demand to “do something” about illegal immigration. You have to feel for them. When the typical senator or congressional representative undertakes a typical swing through the district or state, it's the issue that just won't quit.

In town-hall meetings, the issue gets raised, as do tempers in the room. Inevitably, an exercised constituent grabs the mike, points his or her finger, and asks, “With terrorists trying to figure out how to get into the country to attack us, what are you doing to secure our borders?”

Then the local newspaper calls about a girl, a high-school valedictorian, on the verge of being deported because of rigid policies and bad legal advice. Her church and school are rallying to her defense. “Do you intend,” the reporter asks, “to intervene with federal immigration authorities to keep this model student and her family together so they can pursue the American dream?”

During a meeting with local employers, a local business owner remarks offhandedly to our solon that his enterprise would not be able to survive, much less grow, if not for his immigrant workers. A sensitive subject is broached; the lid comes off; other employers get worked up. “We can't find anyone else to fill the positions we have opening up,” the business owner says. “They show us a document when hired; who knows if it's legit? We suspect most are not, but we have to accept them or we can get accused of discrimination. Besides, it's the only way we can find the workers we need.”

And on it goes. Church officials and ethnic leaders weigh in to ask that immigrants' work be rewarded and that families be reunited. A union member complains that subcontractors are undercutting wages and working conditions by hiring vulnerable immigrant workers too scared to speak up. A hospital official points to uncompensated care costs and the need for medical translators. An unemployed worker growls that immigrants are getting all the jobs. Local elected officials shake their heads about the emotions stirred by a controversy over whether the county should provide funding for a proposed day-labor site.

Yikes! Our typical lawmaker frets. Staffers! I need a briefing! Get somebody in here who knows something! Will you please explain to me what's going on?

“Thank you for inviting me in to speak with you and your staff. I hope you don't mind if I'm blunt.”

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Over the past two decades, successive Congresses and administrations have made a concerted effort to curtail illegal immigration at the Mexican border. It has failed miserably. According to a recent report by Princeton professor Douglas S. Massey, the U.S. Border Patrol's budget has increased tenfold since 1986. And yet this unprecedented increase in enforcement has coincided with an unprecedented increase in illegal immigration. The population of undocumented immigrants in the United States has risen to 11 million, and about 500,000 new migrants settle here each year.

We have an integrated labor market with Latin America, but we've failed to account for this fact in our policies. The movement of migrants from Latin America to the United States has been going on for decades, and this migration from south to north is not the problem. On balance, it's a good thing: Our economy depends on the immigrant workers, the workers and their families depend on the wages they earn, and the “sending countries” depend on the remittances sent home by the workers.


The problem is we have no workable regulatory regime. In the absence of legal channels, workers have nowhere to go but into the clutches of a black market dominated by smugglers, fake-document merchants, and unscrupulous employers. Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute sums it up this way: “Demand for low-skilled labor continues to grow in the United States while the domestic supply of suitable workers inexorably declines -- yet U.S. immigration law contains virtually no legal channel through which low-skilled immigrant workers can enter the country to fill that gap ... . American immigration laws are colliding with reality, and reality is winning.”

He's right. A few years ago I visited Tixla, a sending community in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Many of its sons and daughters had left and migrated illegally to Chicago to fill service-sector jobs. Those left behind were mostly women, children, and the elderly. The workers used to come back to visit, but this had mostly stopped due to the press of their jobs up north and the risks associated with recrossing the border illegally. The townspeople were proud to show us the new school and basketball court that had recently been built with pooled remittances. And there, right in the middle of the basketball court, was a huge replica of the Chicago Bulls' logo.

That's when it hit me: Tixla, a dusty, rural town south of Mexico City, is a bedroom community for Chicago. We may not think of it that way, but it is a 21st-century fact. The town produces the workers needed to fill newly created service-sector jobs in the Chicago area. No matter how long or difficult the commute, the workers are going to find a way to show up for work.


America does have relatively generous employment-based quotas for high-skilled workers. But for workers who come to fill service jobs? Nada. The labor market demands roughly 500,000 such workers a year, but our immigration laws supply just 5,000 such immigrant visas annually. And this tiny trickle is backlogged for 10 years.

My point is that there is an enormous mismatch between labor-market realities and our immigration policy. Moreover, our family visa lines are so backlogged that it can take a decade for spouses to be reunited -- legally. Not surprisingly, many stop waiting and come illegally. Given all this, is it any wonder that our system is so broken, that our border-control efforts have failed, that 500,000 migrants settle without permission in the United States each year, and that the undocumented immigrant population now totals 11 million people?


We need a new perspective, one that transcends the myopia of the current either/or mind-set so popular with the polarized political class. We need a both/and approach that recognizes both the reality of an integrated labor market with Latin America and the legitimate demand for operational control of the borders in a post–September 11 world. We need to combine expanded enforcement strategies, expanded legal channels for those entering the U.S. to work and join families, and expanded pathways to legal status and citizenship for undocumented immigrants already living and working here.

We need to enact comprehensive, workable reform legislation that is anchored in this new perspective. The only measure on the table that would come close is the recently introduced McCain-Kennedy bill. Its formal name is the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005. Along with Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy, it was co-authored by Representatives Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, and Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe, Arizona Republicans.


Specifically, the bill combines enhanced enforcement to ensure the reformed immigration system is effectively policed, widened legal channels for the future flow of workers and families, a workable solution for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently working and living in the United States, and support for the successful integration of newcomers in the communities where they settle.

The key to effective enforcement is to make sure that all workers hired in the United States are here legally. The bill would accomplish this by building an electronic worker-verification system (think credit-card swipe machines, but for Social Security cards, driver's licenses, or immigration documents, and only at the point of hire) combined with tough sanctions for employers who attempt to do an end run around the new system. Responsible employers are for it, as long as it's combined with legal channels for workers here and those needed in the future. Unscrupulous employers are getting nervous, because they benefit from the dysfunctional status quo.

The keys to making the admissions system realistic, controlled, and workable are providing enough visas for the expected future flow of workers and families and avoiding the abuses of old-style guest-worker programs. The bill would accomplish the first by creating 400,000 worker visas a year and increasing family-reunification visas slightly so that the current illegal flow would be funneled into a legal one. It would tackle the second by requiring employers to pay newly admitted workers the same wages as similarly situated workers. For example, workers on temporary visas would be able to change jobs without it threatening their immigration status. After four years in the country, such workers would be able to petition for permanent residence, rather than having to ask for the blessing of a particular employer.

The key to putting migration on a legal footing once and for all is finding a way for the 11 million undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows voluntarily. The act would address this controversial issue head-on by offering incentives for undocumented immigrants to come forward, register with the government, pay a fine, study English, and clear up their taxes on their way to earning permanent residency. Immigrants who met these requirements could apply for permanent residence after six years and be eligible for citizenship in 11.

Critics call this “amnesty.” Kennedy replies, “Our plan offers a realistic alternative -- not an amnesty. There is no free pass, no automatic pardon, no trip to the front of the line.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page, which is no friend of Kennedy's but supports more open borders, largely agreed with the senator: “Those who wave the ‘no amnesty' flag are actually encouraging a larger underground illegal population.”

Finally, the bill promotes the successful integration of new immigrants into local communities. Immigration has worked because newcomers are encouraged to become new Americans. The Secure America act would take steps to renew this commitment by increasing English classes for adult immigrants, promoting citizenship, and offering the legal security workers need to move up the economic ladder. It's worth noting that when 3 million undocumented immigrants became legal immigrants some 20 years ago, their wages increased by 14 percent over five years and their productivity increased dramatically.

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The bill certainly has its faults and its critics. The enforcement provisions are strong but would need to be strengthened if we are to ensure that immigrant workers and families use widened legal channels and no others. Similarly, the bill aims to construct a temporary-worker program that would adequately protect both native and immigrant workers alike, though it would probably need refinements to achieve this objective. After all, the goal of immigration reform should be nothing less than to restore the rule of law -- both to our immigration system and to low-wage labor markets. And, unfortunately, the bill does not adequately address the acknowledged long-term solution to the migration challenge: economic development in sending nations and communities.

Still, the bill's premise is brilliant and its promise viable. It is a 21st-century proposal to deal with a 21st-century challenge.


McCain-Kennedy has garnered surprising support from across the spectrum and across the country. Co-sponsors run the gamut, from Republican Senator Sam Brownback on the right to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi on the left. Supporters include ethnic, religious, business, and labor groups, as well as some pro-reform conservatives. Within 90 days of its introduction, 52 of the nation's newspapers had printed 69 editorials and opinion pieces in favor of the McCain-Kennedy approach.

You would have thought that President George W. Bush would embrace the bill, declare it consistent with his own bold ideas regarding comprehensive reform, and promote it. You would have thought wrong. In July, top administration officials -- Labor Secretary Elaine Chao and Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff -- were told by the White House at the last minute not to show up as scheduled and testify before a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration reform. A peeved Arlen Specter, Judiciary Committee chairman, promised full committee action this fall, with or without White House input.

Some believed the White House held back in favor of a competing Senate bill authored by Republican Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Jon Kyl of Arizona. But that bill was introduced in July to a resounding thud. The smoke signals coming out of the White House now suggest that the president will rework his own 2004 reform principles and push them out the door sometime this fall. But it's likely that the heavy lifting will be left to Congress.


More so than most issues, immigration creates tensions within both political parties. However, the divisions are far more pronounced among Republicans. At times it seems the party is on the verge of a civil war, with culturally conservative populists and traditional law-and-order types on one side and pro-growth libertarians and pro-business conservatives on the other.

This leaves Republican leaders all over the place on immigration reform. A small but hardy band that supports workable reform in the House is complemented by a larger group in the Senate. Recent comments by House Speaker Dennis Hastert indicate that he is open to reform, while Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist can't figure out how to talk about the issue or when to bring it up in his chamber.

Meanwhile, the now-sidelined former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay wants more enforcement-only measures -- and only after more enforcement bills are passed. Ideally, the House leadership wants a bill that would combine an old-style guest-worker program with an old-style crackdown on the 11 million undocumented immigrants. Of McCain-Kennedy, DeLay said, “It's not going to do very well in the House, I'll guarantee that.” In the meantime, he supports an enforcement-only measure popular among anti-immigrant groups and unpopular with local law enforcement. It would cut funding for local police unless they enforce federal immigration laws and round up undocumented immigrants. He even helpfully offered some limited federal backup. “If you pick up 50 or 100 of them, you can call the National Guard,” he said. “Put them in tents.”

In siding with the anti-immigration hard-liners, DeLay seems to be allying himself with an unusual populist revolt within the gop against business. So certain is he that a crackdown on illegal immigration is politically important to a portion of the restless Republican base that he seems willing to support a unilateral crackdown on businesses that rely on immigrant workers and risk a backlash from some segments in the business community.

Finally, there's a group of House members to DeLay's right, some 82 members of the House Immigration Reform Caucus led by hard-liner Tom Tancredo of Colorado. He is gearing up to enter the Republican presidential primaries as a single-issue anti-immigration candidate. Some suspect he will follow in Pat Buchanan's footsteps, first as a Republican primary contender and later as a Reform Party presidential candidate, garnering more attention than votes along the way.

But what plays among House Republicans is unlikely to be seen by most as a real solution. Most observers suspect that McCain-Kennedy, with beefed up immigration enforcement and worker protections, will be able to attract 60 to 75 votes. And the reaction to Cornyn-Kyl reveals that in this new debate, the new yardstick is, “Will it work?” In response to the bill's approach to the 11 million undocumented immigrants, McCain said, “‘report to deport' … isn't workable … . [It] borders on fantasy.” Pro-immigration conservative Grover Norquist called the Cornyn-Kyl approach “nutty.” Business groups and the Catholic Church responded to the overall proposal by formally endorsing McCain-Kennedy.

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The Democrats also have their tensions. The majority sees immigrants as part of a 21st-century New Deal coalition. Yet cross pressures and ambivalence stem from fears that immigration is detrimental to low-income workers and that immigrants are being groomed as “honorary whites” so as to further marginalize struggling African Americans.

What does all this mean for the prospects of good reform legislation? With Republicans split and Bush holding back, it probably means that the president can achieve immigration reform as part of his legacy only if he does something he doesn't normally do: stand up to hard-liners in his own party. On the other hand, if the issue proves too hot for him to handle precisely because of internal Republican divisions, all his talk of immigration reform will be just that. The bottom line? If the majority of Democrats and the minority of Republicans who support workable reform stay together and stay on offense, it's the only package that can pass -- and the only package that can work.

In fact, smart Democrats are beginning to recognize that this is an issue on which it pays to play offense. Governors Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Janet Napolitano of Arizona demonstrated this in August when they filled the vacuum created by an absence of presidential leadership and Republican unity by calling for both tougher border control and smarter immigration policies à la McCain-Kennedy. Hawks on the right were quick to accuse them of “switching positions” from well-established pro-immigrant records on the part of both governors, indicating just how blind these hard-liners are to the emerging debate about how to fix our broken immigration system with a combination of enhanced enforcement and expanded legality for immigrant workers and their families.


That's my recommendation. I will go so far as to predict that the immigration debate is about to be transformed. Lawmakers who describe the problem honestly and propose workable solutions will soon gain the upper hand on the enforcement-only crowd. The latter are about to be exposed as all hat and no cattle. Before long, their constant whining, rigid intransigence, and insistence on more of the same will be blamed for thwarting workable reform and perpetuating the illegality and insecurity of the current system.

Finally, let me suggest something that is hard to hear inside the Beltway. The public seems better prepared for workable immigration reform than the political class. In polling done for my organization, Republican pollster Ed Goeas of The Tarrance Group teamed up with Democratic pollster Celinda Lake of Lake Snell Perry Mermin & Associates to test public reaction to the elements of the Secure America bill. Even though the package is complicated, and even after it was put up against the best arguments of opponents, voters support the overall proposal by a margin of 77 percent to 20 percent. The poll was conducted in March of this year, and the findings are drawn from telephone interviews with 800 likely voters nationwide, with a confidence interval of plus or minus 3.5 percent. Support was broad and deep among all demographics.

As if to underscore the point and confound conventional wisdom, an October poll by Goeas, this one of 800 likely Republican voters, found fully 78 percent favor the same, comprehensive approach to reform -- one that combines tougher enforcement, employer sanctions, and tighter borders with “earned legalization” for immigrants who come forward to register, work, pay taxes, and learn English. Moreover, two-thirds of those polled said they'd view President Bush more favorably if he'd support such a plan. Across the political spectrum, the desire for a solution is palpable.

Get out in front of this issue. Be for a solution that can work. Be for reforms that combine America's traditions as both a nation of immigrants and a nation of laws. Be for a progressive, pragmatic, bipartisan approach that controls our borders, protects workers, respects immigrants, and grows the economy. Sure, you've got some 'splainin' to do. But that's what political leadership requires. Sure, the echo chamber of simplistic sound bites will be replicated in your town-hall meetings (“What part of ‘illegal' don't you understand?”). But now you'll have a realistic analysis and a pragmatic solution. And when it's time to match their sound bites with one of your own, here's my suggestion: Good policy is good politics.

Frank Sharry is the executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant advocacy organization located in Washington, D.C.

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