There's been a lot of discussion about immigration lately, and lots of legislation floating around Congress reflecting the different viewpoints. My views on immigration are pretty complex, so before reaching a conclusion I'd like to cover my thoughts on the issue point-by-point.
1. There is a difference between immigration and illegal immigration. When the topic of immigration comes up, people often begin talking about illegal immigration. I find that frustrating; let's be more careful with our language.
2. The U.S. has a special obligation to welcome immigrants. Ours is a country where more than 99 percent of the population are immigrants or descended from immigrants. Immigration is a vital part of the American culture, and our relative openness to immigration has yielded considerable benefits over the course of our history. There are some out there who would be perfectly happy to see the U.S. never absorb another immigrant - legal or otherwise - ever again. In my opinion, those people are amoral extremists and morons.
3. It is in our best interest to admit large numbers of immigrants. If you're not convinced that the U.S. should allow large numbers of immigrants for ethical reasons, perhaps you'll be convinced that the U.S. should allow large numbers of immigrants for practical reasons. Immigrants have been a driving force in numerous sectors of the American economy for hundreds of years. Many of the smartest, most creative, most ambitious people in other countries want to emigrate to the U.S.; what the rest of the world calls "brain drain", we call "a significant portion of our entrepreneurial capital". Furthermore, low-skilled immigrants also play an important role in the economy; their willingness to work for low wages makes many services more affordable to other Americans, and - it's true - they are willing to take jobs that most Americans won't.
4. Illegal immigrants are not bad people. Yes, they broke the law, and that's bad. But, I've often thought that if I was in their situation, I probably would have done the exact same thing. Most illegal immigrants come from abject poverty and are seeking an economic opportunity that will create a better life for themselves and their family. If they could have that opportunity without breaking the law (and without enduring a risky journey across the border), I'm sure that most illegal immigrants would do so. But, since that's not an option for most, they break the law and come into this country, which is a decision that I can picture a lot of decent, otherwise law-abiding people making.
5. Illegal immigration is a problem. Immigration laws exist for a reason. Any country has the right to pick and choose which people get to enter the country. It is entirely reasonable for a country to seek an immigrant population that contains no criminals (including terrorists), has a diverse skill set (read: contains a lot of skilled, educated people), and doesn't contain numbers that will overwhelm infrastructure or government services. Furthermore, illegal immigrants' illegitimate status creates some problems; they often don't have drivers' licenses or insurance (auto liability or health), it is extremely difficult to get them to testify in court, and they make labor laws difficult to enforce. Finally, ineffective enforcement of immigration laws sets a bad precedent; if the U.S. were to abandon all attempts to enforce our immigration laws, a couple billion people from the developing world would be in this country by the end of the week.
6. Illegal immigration is not that big of a problem. For all the concerns I expressed in the previous paragraph, many of those concerns are relatively minor. Most illegal immigrants are not criminals (and ordinary immigration laws aren't likely to be the biggest impediment to a terrorist attack), their skill sets generally match the areas in which we need workers (they wouldn't come if they couldn't find a job once they got here), and situations in which they have significantly increased the burden on government services are limited. Illegal immigrants pay most taxes, and their use of social services isn't nearly as large as many would have you believe (think about it: if you're an illegal immigrant, how much interaction with the government do you really want to have?). The U.S. has had large numbers of illegal immigrants for decades now, and major problems have not developed. Any adjustments to immigration policy need to be done with the realization that our current immigration policy, while imperfect, has not created an intolerable situation.
7. The U.S. doesn't owe illegal immigrants anything. To hear some illegal immigrant advocates talk, you'd think that illegal immigrants have been horribly wronged. That's ridiculous; nobody has a right to immigrate to another country. Illegal immigrants have human rights; they do not have, nor do they necessarily deserve, the full slate of rights enjoyed by American citizens.
8. We should definitely not engage in any large-scale effort to deport illegal immigrants. This is true for two reasons. First, the draconian measure of actually rounding people up, charging them with a felony, and shipping them out (as the bill passed by the House in December would do) is way too harsh and not the kind of thing that civilized societies do. Second, segments of our economy have adjusted to the presence of these immigrants, and deporting them all would produce an enormous shock (imagine what would happen to the hotel industry if all the illegal immigrants in the U.S. suddenly disappeared). Reducing the presence of illegal immigrants needs to be done by stemming the flow of new illegal immigrants and, possibly, either: 1) Granting amnesty to illegal immigrants presently in the country, or 2) Gradually deporting those that get caught over a long period of time.
9. The negative effects of immigration on wages don't seem to be as large as you might expect. It seems obvious that increasing the supply of workers in a particular sector would have a depressing effect (in the economic sense) on wages. However, several recent studies suggest that that effect is not as large as you might think. Employers in generally immigrant-dependent industries located in areas without many immigrants seem to invest in technology instead of offering higher wages (the Washington Post had an editorial recently explaining all of this). So arguments that immigration drives down wages for low-skilled workers don't seem to be as powerful as they might first appear.
10. The effects of immigration on unemployment don't seem to be very large, either. It's surely true that immigrants - including illegal immigrants - do take some jobs that would otherwise be filled by American citizens. But those job losses need to be put in perspective by this fact: unemployment in the U.S., in historical and international perspective, is ridiculously low. Right now unemployment in the U.S. is just over 5 percent. No advanced economy (nor any undeveloped economy, as far as I know) has an unemployment rate that low, and most European countries would love to get their unemployment rate as low as even 10 percent. In the late 1990s, when immigration (legal and illegal) was going every bit as strong as it is now, U.S. unemployment hit the ridiculously low number of 3.8 percent. Now, I know that unemployment statistics generally understate the actual level of unemployment (as they don't account for "discouraged workers" or the underemployed), and that nationwide unemployment figures don't matter much to someone who's just lost their job; those are both good points. But the fact remains that if immigration was causing large numbers of Americans to be unemployed, it would be reflected in our unemployment statistics.
11. Any measure to prevent illegal immigration needs to be considered with its effectiveness in mind. Many proposals to limit illegal immigration seem good at first, but, in reality, wouldn't be very effective (of course, that won't prevent many politicians from advocating them, as much of the politics of immigration involves pandering to a xenophobic base instead of crafting good policy). Many people say that we should step up border controls, but previous efforts to step up border controls have had little impact. I was optimistic about the effectiveness of a proposal to require employers to run new employees' information through a national database, but now questions are being raised about that program's burden and effectiveness; those concerns are articulated well in this editorial in the Post. That same article, fortunately, provides some hope that requiring employers to follow up on Social Security "non-matches" might yield some results. Building a wall would probably be effective, but would cost around $2 billion (not counting the border guards that would still need to patrol it), and has an undeniably negative appearance (though people who compare such a wall to the Berlin Wall are, in my opinion, idiots). I am willing to consider practically any proposal to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants, but I am going to weigh the benefits of that proposal against its costs.
12. Granting amnesty is not desirable, but it might be a sensible policy anyway. Granting amnesty (whether you call it that or not) to illegal immigrants does reward people for illegal behavior, and it does set a bad precedent, but it might be the most sensible way of dealing with the illegal immigrants who are already here. As I said, we shouldn't engage in a large-scale deportation of illegal immigrants, and many of the problems posed by illegal immigration could be solved if those immigrants were simply documented. If we can develop effective measures to prevent future waves of illegal immigrants, then the best method of dealing with immigrants who are already here might be to grant them amnesty on the condition that they do things such as pay back-taxes and submit to a background check.
13. Programs allowing immigrants into this country should promise the prospect of full citizenship. My main problem with Bush's guest worker proposal is that it provides no path for those guest workers to eventually become citizens. Not only will this result in many guest workers eventually becoming illegal immigrants, but it creates a powerful disincentive for guest workers to assimilate. If a guest worker knows that he or she will eventually be deported (or become an illegal immigrant), that person will never fully adopt the mindset that he or she is an American. This discourages immigrants from learning English or participating in American civic life. And, perhaps most importantly, it sends a signal to immigrants that they are not really wanted here and they will never be real Americans. That, in my opinion, is much more unfriendly than a wall.
Now to connect all these dots. Given the opinions I've expressed above, my ideal immigration policy would:
1. Use effective but proportionate measures to prevent illegal immigration.
2. Increase the number of green cards issued so that our total immigrant inflow is similar to (or possibly slightly below) the current aggregate level of legal and illegal immigrants.
3. Issue those green cards with an emphasis on skilled and educated workers (like we do now), though large numbers of green cards would also be available for low-skilled workers.
4. Offer amnesty with the prospect of citizenship to illegal immigrants presently in the country on the condition that they pay back taxes and submit to a background check.
Of the proposals currently floating around Capitol Hill, the closest to the plan above would probably be the compromise that just fell apart in the Senate. I would give that proposal a "B", with it missing an "A" because it is not comprehensive and I don't fully understand why a person's length of illegal stay in this country would affect their prospects for citizenship. I would give the bill passed by the House in December an "F"; it is all draconian enforcement and does nothing to address the fact that we should be welcoming large numbers of legal immigrants into this country. I would give President Bush's guest worker proposal a "C", as it is a half-measure that recognizes the need for legal immigrants but doesn't address the issue in a manner that is sustainable in the long term.
One final note: I think that issuing large numbers of green cards to countries with whom we have friendly relations should be a major component of our foreign policy. This would likely result in immigrants coming to this country in greater numbers than they presently do, though they would come from different places (think more Ghanaians and fewer Venezuelans). We already do this to a certain extent, but it's a strategy that I think should be ramped up, as it is a carrot that we're not fully utilizing.