The nation has been swept up in a battle over immigration reform all year. As Congress and the President struggle to enact new 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 question of whether there is, in fact, an immigration crisis in the first place.
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 newcomers
that native-born Americans have long expressed. For more images and
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Bush’s Border Bravado
Non-militarized non-solutions to a non-problem
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, José—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 Reason.
Worse Than a Wall
The immigration solution everyone likes may end up hurting the most.
Anyone convinced that America is suffering from excessive diversity should peruse the seven immigration bills that were floating around the Capitol in May. Traversing the conceptual distance between the minds of Lou Dobbs and Bill O’Reilly, members of Congress on both side of the aisle debated how high the walls should be, how onerous the fines, how long the wait to legality. Amid all this robust debate, one steadfast conviction united the almost-distinguishable ravings of center-left and center-right: the need to keep closer watch on those radical patrons of social unrest, American business owners.
Pick your acronym—EEVS (Electronic Employer Verification System) in the Senate bill, BEVP (Basic Employer Verification Program) in the widely condemned House version, NEECS (New Employment Eligibility Confirmation System) in the alternative McCain/Kennedy rendition. Each represents a federal database system that will bestow a yea or nay upon every would-be worker in the Land of the Free, whether she is surnamed Rogers or Rodriguez, born in Manassas or Mexico City. The system the American Civil Liberties Union calls a “permission slip to work” requires verification from not one but two federal agencies: the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). If any of the prominent immigration measures pass as written, every hiring decision will become a matter of public concern, subject to dual bureaucracies, two databases, and an untold number of deciders.
Verification systems poll well; they have come to represent the response of a solid middle ground, of just wanting, for goodness’ sake, to follow the law. “They do work hard,” sighs Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), pondering the plight of illegal immigrants in America, “but they are criminals.” That sentiment conveniently fails to account for lawmakers’ own part in transforming the attempt to work into a transgression worthy of deportation, and in outlining a path to legalization so burdensome, bureaucratic, and restrictive that millions of otherwise law-abiding immigrants would rather risk sanction than attempt it.
The “hate the crime, love the criminal” ruse inevitably compels a crackdown on that other class of hopeless scofflaws, employers, who become reluctant enforcers in a muddled immigration regime. A mandatory employee database system has been a staple of legislative wish lists for years, and most of the bills under consideration would scale up a voluntary test program known as Basic Pilot. In August 2005 the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reviewed that program and found it to be staggering under the weight of 3,600 employers. Mandatory usage would bring that number to 8.4 million.
How does the government that brought you the prescription drug benefit debacle plan to manage an electronic system involving every employed person in these United States? The GAO needs a color-coded map to explain, but here’s the basic summary: Employers send data for every new hire to DHS, which then sends information to SSA, which then sends information back to DHS, which sends information back to the employer, who can either contest any rejected applicants and begin the process anew, risk fines for not complying, or accept the findings. The burden of contesting mistakes and keeping records lies with employers. The price tag, says the GAO, will be about $11.7 billion annually, “with employers bearing much of the cost.”
Every employee must be entered and tracked individually, which may prove impossible for employers who hire large numbers of workers on a seasonal or day-by-day basis and for businesses that depend on labor flexibility to stay competitive. It’s a 21st-century system built for a lost world of 9-to-5 employment, a retro-futuristic vision of time cards, assembly lines, and electronic surveillance.
Despite sharply negative reports from the GAO and independent contractors hired by DHS, pro-enforcement groups trot out survey data about the hundreds of hard-core verification fans out there, including user approval ratings exceeding 90 percent. “Participating employers overwhelmingly report positive experiences,” enthuses the Center for Immigration Studies. The center fails to mention what the report itself notes: That survey data reflects a percentage of the very tiny share of employers who voluntarily signed up for Basic Pilot. A large percentage of U.S. soldiers report positive experiences in the service too; under the same reasoning, we really ought to reinstate the draft.
That rosy assessment also ignores the fact that would-be employees, not employers, may be the people getting most severely screwed. According to the GAO, electronic systems fail a staggering 15 percent of the time, forcing delays as someone at manually follows up. But even a tiny percentage of false negatives could result in a national nightmare of workers on hold while DHS shuffles paper, or wrongly denied work when their employers choose not to contest the government’s findings. Sound like a recipe for lawsuits? The system’s supporters think so too. So the House bill prohibits employees from filing class action lawsuits against the government after they’ve been unjustly fired.
Why are we doing this? Even in the halls of Congress, economic arguments against immigration are losing their aura of truthiness, so pro-enforcement types are focusing on national security. And in the context of terrorism, the employer-as-border-patrol-agent makes even less sense; it presumes that terrorists come here to work.
If the next Al Qaeda operative with big plans pauses to work his way up at a meatpacking plant before committing mass murder, the Electronic Employment Verification System will probably be there to stop him. If not, well, at least everyone will have followed the law.
Kerry Howley is an assistant editor of Reason.
A Legacy of the Unforeseen
The unexpected consequences of immigration reform
Many of the most radical changes in the origins and numbers of America’s vast flow of immigrants were accidentally set in motion by politicians who expected an entirely different result. As Congress considers yet another round of immigration reform, the lesson from history is to beware of unintended consequences.
An estimated 12 million immigrants live illegally in the United States. Another 1 million gain legal residence each year. Millions more are expected to seek entry in coming decades. No one can accurately predict how they might respond to the harsh border crackdown endorsed by the House or the Senate’s plan to offer a path to citizenship for those here illegally and a guest worker program for new arrivals.
“Human behavior has often defied the best-laid plans,” says Daniel Tichenor, an immigration expert at Rutgers University. The past is seldom consulted during today’s debates, but previous attempts at reform suggest how quickly things can go off course.
It was a freshly minted young Massachusetts senator named Edward Kennedy who 40 years ago, in what he called “my maiden effort in the Senate,” managed the landmark Immigration Act of 1965, at the time a minor coda to the Civil Rights Act. (Today Kennedy is the lead Democratic sponsor of the Senate’s bipartisan immigration bill.) The 1965 act eliminated the national origins quotas of the 1920s that favored Northern Europe. It established visa preferences, still in place today, based on family unification and labor skills. It imposed the first numeric limits on Latin American immigration. And it forever changed the face of the United States.
“Arguments against the bill were chiefly based on unsubstantiated fears that the bill would greatly increase annual immigration” and permit “excessive entry” of Asians and Africans, Kennedy wrote in 1966. The Johnson administration declared that “immigration will not be predominantly from Asia and Africa…indeed very few people from certain areas could even pay the cost of tickets to come here.”
New migrants were expected to come from Italy, Greece, and other countries in Southern and Eastern Europe that had been subject to national origins quotas, in addition to the British, Germans, and Scandinavians who had dominated immigration under the quotas. Members of Congress asserted that hordes from other, darker continents would be unable to use family unification because they had no relatives in the United States.
Oddly, the national origins quotas had ignored Mexico, leaving the southern border all but open before 1965. By blocking Southern and Eastern Europeans, the quotas allowed Mexican laborers (and black farmers migrating from the South) to fill their shoes. Lawmakers considered Mexicans, unlike Poles or Italians, to be “returnable,” Tichenor says. “If you want to look at the very early origins of illegal immigration as an issue in America, there it is.”
“This bill that we will sign today is not a revolutionary bill,” President Lyndon Johnson said on Liberty Island in October 1965. “It does not affect the lives of millions.” Within five years, Asian immigration had quadrupled. The first new entrants came through occupational visas, then brought their families, beginning unanticipated network migrations, notes the New York University historian David Reimers. Within a decade, the proportion of European to Asian and Latin American immigrants had reversed. “The way we teach students is we say, in general, the unintended consequences of immigration reforms are more important than the intended consequences,” says Philip Martin, a farm immigration expert at U.C.-Davis.
Two decades later, on November 7, 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed another major immigration reform. It was intended to stop illegal immigration, then seen as a burgeoning problem, by providing a one-time amnesty and banning employers from knowingly hiring illegal workers. “Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people, American citizenship,” Reagan said.
Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), a chief sponsor of the bill, predicted employers would voluntarily comply with the new sanctions. Employer sanctions quickly collapsed under widespread document fraud. Enforcement, never vigorous, has dropped to negligible levels. “People following it at the time knew that employer sanctions would be a joke without secure means of identification,” says Peter Skerry, a political scientist at Boston College. “Everyone was sort of holding their nose, blocking their eyes, doing the best that could get cobbled together.”
Many experts believe the current pattern of illegal immigration from Mexico and Central America was a consequence of the 1986 law’s border tightening, followed by a tougher crackdown in 1996 that built fences in San Diego and El Paso. “The perverse effect has been to dramatically lower return migration out of the country,” says Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton sociologist and co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, a longitudinal survey of more than 18,000 migrants, the largest of its kind. “So we’ve transformed what was before 1986 a circular flow of workers into an increasingly settled population of families. We have actually accelerated the rate of undocumented population growth in the United States and shifted it from a less costly population of male workers into a much more costly population of families.”
The problem, Massey says, is that by making border crossing “very risky and unpleasant and increasingly expensive, you prolong the length of the trips, you reduce the probability of return migration, and you make it more likely that migrants…just hunker down and stay.” The rate of migration from Mexico has actually stayed constant for the last two decades, Massey found. But the rate of return has fallen by half, from 50 percent to 25 percent.
Ever since Ben Franklin expressed alarm that growing enclaves of Germans in Pennsylvania showed no signs of learning English, Americans have feared new immigrants and waxed sentimental about the previous stock. “One lesson from the past is that Americans have tended to celebrate their immigrant past but dread the immigrant present,” says Tichenor. “They have often viewed the newest arrivals as menacing or as threats to the national identity or economy. What’s intriguing is they’ve usually made snap judgments in very short time horizons.”
U.S. policy has lurched between bouts of expansion and restriction, often accompanied by strong racial animus. Borders were open until the late 1800s, when Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. The 1907 “Gentlemen’s Agreement” barred Japanese laborers—a deal made after the San Francisco school board ordered Japanese children to segregated Chinese schools. The San Francisco Chronicle warned of an invasion of vagrant Japanese workers it deemed “bumptious, disagreeable and unreliable.”
The government conducted mass deportations of Mexicans during the Great Depression and in a program labeled Operation Wetback in 1954, deporting an estimated 1.4 million people in all. Bad economic times, backlashes against new immigrants, or worries about national security often brought new restrictions. The national origins quotas of 1924 and 1928 followed the Great Migration at the turn of the century and the isolationism and fear of Bolshevik influences that followed World War I. Not even the Holocaust moved Congress to ease the restrictions.
Immigration often expanded after wars. The 1954 War Brides Act admitted 100,000 spouses after World War II and the Korean War. After the Vietnam War, more than 1 million Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians were admitted.
Expansions of legal immigration often occurred over public objections. “I don’t know a single poll going back to the 1930s that’s indicated the public wants more immigrants to come in as opposed to fewer,” says Reimers, the historian. Defiance of public opinion is a striking constant of immigration policy, long fascinating political scientists. Major expansions were often achieved through unorthodox alliances joining businesses, ethnic groups, free market think tanks, and churches.
Because immigration has often divided both political parties, interest groups wield extraordinary influence in the debates, says the Stanford political scientist Carolyn Wong, author of Lobbying for Inclusion. Business lobbies wanting more labor visas and ethnic groups wanting more family visas often form powerful alliances.
California growers have long been key players. Congress created its first major guest worker plan in 1942, the Bracero (“strong-armed one”) program for unskilled Mexicans to relieve temporary labor shortages during World War II. The program lasted 22 years, admitting 4.5 million workers. Rife with abuses, it was dropped around the time the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed.
Many scholars believe the Bracero program laid the groundwork for today’s illegal immigration by setting up labor networks in Mexico and distorting the U.S. farm economy. The program was plagued by red tape and graft on both sides of the border, inducing many Mexicans to cross illegally. By providing an ample labor force of often-abused workers, it induced growers to plant high-profit, labor-intensive crops. California growers were able to undercut Southern growers, producing California’s vibrant fruit and vegetable industry, which to this day relies on illegal migrants.
Because wages for migrant farm workers hardly rose, those who could leave for better-paying jobs in cities fled the farms, requiring a constant flow of workers.
Growers warned that California’s canned tomato industry would die and food prices would rise if the Bracero program ended. At its height in 1960, 45,000 farm workers harvested 2.2 million tons of processing tomatoes, according to U.C.-Davis’ Martin. Six years after the program ended, a new oblong tomato was developed that could be machine harvested. By 1999, just 5,000 farm workers harvested 12 million tons of tomatoes and costs fell 54 percent, Martin found. The United Farm Workers union soon won a wage increase. “I think they honestly didn’t think change could happen near as quickly as it actually happened,” says Martin.
Another expansion came with the 1990 immigration reform, including an obscure provision known as the “diversity visa” to fix perceived problems created by the 1965 act, then referred to by some as the “Irish Exclusion Act,” according to a study by DePaul University political scientist Anna O. Law. Sponsored by Kennedy, the diversity visa was supposed to redress the 1965 law’s unforeseen restrictions on immigration from “old seed sources of our heritage.” The diversity visa today admits 50,000 people a year and is used heavily by Egyptians, Moroccans, Nigerians and other Africans. “In about 10 years,” says Reimers, “the country may not be so hysterical about Hispanics and may be more hysterical about Africans.”
Contributing Editor Carolyn Lochhead is the Washington correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, where an earlier version of this article appeared.
Open the Borders
Why should citizens of NAFTA countries need visas at all?
If there’s one thing about NAFTA/WTO-style free trade that has always driven labor activists nuts, it’s that modern trade agreements allow “free flow of capital” but not “free flow of people.” So organized labor would support any move that gives workers more flexibility and power, right? Wrong.
While American labor has come a long way since the 1980s, when the AFL-CIO supported the most punitive “employer sanction” aspects of that era’s immigration reform efforts, the country’s major unions do not speak with one voice on this topic. And the complicated labor arguments over immigration indicate more than just divergent motivations among unions. They hint at why even the best “guest worker” legislation will be the kind of half-measure that principled supporters of immigration should treat with skepticism.
“We remain deeply troubled by the expansion of guest worker programs—for workers not already in this country—contemplated by the bill voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee,” AFL-CIO President John Sweeney said in March. “Guest workers programs are a bad idea and harm all workers.”
Whatever party politics Sweeney may have played in souring the Senate’s efforts at a compromise immigration reform bill, he was invoking classic zero-sum labor politics: Freer entry by new workers from south of the border means more competition and more downward wage pressure for Sweeney’s constituents. Interestingly, however, his is not a unanimous labor position. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) took the opposite tack, backing the Judiciary Committee bill, and for reasons that mirror Sweeney’s reasons for opposing it. SEIU spokesperson Avril Smith says the organization’s decision was based on a number of factors, including an expansive guest worker program and the bill’s guarantee of 325,000 new work visas per year. “Any legislation we support will have to include visa programs,” she says.
If you want to see the kind of philosophical differences that drove SEIU’s spectacular divorce from the AFL-CIO last year, this is a pretty good example. The major unions share the view that existing undocumented workers—the 12 million or so thought to be in the United States today—should be regularized (and made easier to organize). The difference of opinion arises from the proverbial campesino who is still in Mexico but may come north in the future. Is that person a potential ally or a competitor for scarce wages?
SEIU’s answer depends partly on the organization’s demographics, high in immigrant laborers. (Some unions in the “Change to Win” coalition that joined SEIU in splitting from the AFL-CIO have not taken a position on the current round of immigration reform.) But even United Farm Workers of America (UFW), which has a largely though not wholly immigrant work force (despite popular images of the migrant worker as the icon of illegal immigration, only about 1 million of the reputed 12 million undocumented workers in the United States work in agriculture), is careful to separate its own guest worker efforts from plans that would open up new visa opportunities to people who are not already in the country. UFW’s “Ag Jobs” initiative, explains spokesman Marc Grossman, “is not retroactive. You can’t come into the country and then take advantage of it.…But if they’ve been brought into this country, we want to protect them.”
So where does that leave a Mexican citizen who hopes to make it to the United States someday? “Out of luck,” Grossman says.
Considering how much the SEIU and UFW contributed to April’s impressive pro-immigrant demonstrations, it may seem surprising to argue that the interests of the unions conflict with freer immigration. “Most labor unions see that their ranks will be swollen by these people,” says Hector Flores, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “So you’d be shooting yourself in the foot to say, ‘I oppose these people.’ ” But the modest goal of a more functional guest worker program raises problems for a principled supporter of free immigration.
First, even a fully functioning guest worker program creates cruelties for the people who participate in it. (See “America’s Criminal Immigration Policy,” February.) More important, there’s something paradoxical in allotting visas or guest worker provisions only to people who are tied to employee situations in the United States. Immigrants have always been among the most entrepreneurial classes in American life. You could make the case that small business startups have been the single greatest national benefit of immigration. It’s an idiocy worthy of, well, the U.S. govern-ment to make the promise of immigration depend on one’s ability to find a clock-punching job at an existing company.
The solution to the immigration crisis, if there is such a crisis, does not rest in guest worker programs or higher visa quotas, but in the one possibility nobody is mentioning: eliminating visas altogether within the NAFTA countries, and allowing Canadians, Americans, and Mexicans with legitimate passports to travel freely among our three countries for any reason or for no reason. This was the early vision of Ronald Reagan, and it was certainly an implied outcome of NAFTA. “NAFTA had an effect on the Mexican economy, in terms of encouraging campesinos to leave the farm and seek better opportunities,” says Fred Tsao, policy director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant Rights, “but we’ve shut off the legal opportunities for people to do that.”
The pathetic aspect of this debate is that visaless NAFTA borders would not even be a novel step. They would be a partial return to the way things were in the golden age, when the Tancredos, the Sensenbrenners, and the Cavanaughs first fouled these shores. Anti-illegal-immigrant types who never tire of pointing out that their ancestors came here legally are making a hollow argument: Until fairly recently in American history, there was no motive for illegal immigration; all a prospective American had to do was show up. It’s a sign of a timid and tired nation that, in a period of economic expansion, we’re not even willing to allow such an open system for our immediate neighbors and closest trading partners. “Guest worker provisions are an attempt to recapture some of the circularity that happened in the past, when people moved more freely between countries,” says Tsao. “Whether that’s going to work, I don’t know.”
When asked about visaless borders, every person I interviewed for this article gave two replies: that we need to be realistic about our options, and that the guest worker compromise will be more fair than what we have now. The first of these answers is half-right: In the current political climate, the idea of eliminating visa requirements with Canada and Mexico seems as heretical as the notion of pasteurization or a sun-centered solar system. Beyond that, the arguments of realism and fairness are entirely wrong. The guest worker compromise is unrealistic because it has nothing to do with economic reality on this continent. Nor is it especially fair: At best it will grandfather in some portion of the existing undocumented work force (and probably not a very large portion).
For anybody who dreams of coming to the United States for a better job, or to start his or her own taqueria or a retail toque outlet, the various Senate proposals will not increase, and may even reduce, the legal opportunities to pursue the American dream.
Since all parties to this debate draw a line between legal and illegal immigration, we should note that visaless borders would greatly increase the former and virtually eliminate the latter. Is that a problem? I don’t think so, and people who oppose the idea need to explain why they think it would be.
Tim Cavanaugh is Reason’s Web editor.
Exploitation or Expulsion
Illegal immigrants in a double bind
In April, Tzu Ming Yang and Jack Chang of Clarksville, a wealthy Baltimore suburb, pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to harbor illegal aliens and launder money. Yang’s wife, Jui Fan Lee Yang, copped to employing the illegals at Kawasaki, the trio’s Baltimore sushi chain. The conspiracy charges could lead to sentences of up to 30 years in prison, and Chang and the Yangs will have to forfeit more than $1 million in property.
The case was noted far beyond the boundaries of Baltimore. The Washington Post called it a sign that “serious criminal charges once typically reserved for drug traffickers and organized-crime figures are increasingly being used to target businesses that employ illegal immigrants.” That’s one important angle to the story. Just as interesting, though, is what the case tells us about the bizarre double bind our immigration laws create for alien workers.
According to the affidavit of Brian Smeltzer, a special agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the investigation began with an anonymous letter claiming Kawasaki “paid the illegal aliens low wages, no overtime, and took their tips; in return, Tzu Yang promised to file paperwork for the illegal aliens to obtain work visas.” (Smeltzer does not say whether Yang followed through on his promise.) An attachment to Mrs. Yang’s plea explained that the restaurants required the employees “to work more than forty hours a week and paid them in cash amounts substantially less than required by law.” Perhaps three-quarters of the employees were here illegally, housed by their employers in dirty, cramped conditions.
The bosses, meanwhile, spent their profits on luxury cars, which the affidavit lists in exhaustive detail. They come off as capitalist villains straight out of central casting; you’d have to arrest Ebenezer Scrooge and C. Montgomery Burns to find such unattractive defendants.
Yet immigrant rights groups aren’t very enthusiastic about this sort of work site enforcement. It’s not hard to see why: Liberated from their taskmasters, the illegal aliens are being deported. Two have already been sent home to El Salvador, while 13 others, Asian natives all, are “on electronic monitoring pending their removal,” according to Marcia Murphy, a public affairs specialist at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Baltimore.
There’s a whole genre of free market literature that defends sweatshops and the like on the grounds that they’re the best available option for their workers—jobs they’ve freely chosen because the immediate alternatives are all worse. I don’t reject that argument outright, but I’ve never found it entirely satisfying either. That’s partly because some of those sweatshop titans don’t just give their charges low wages and long hours; they engage in coercion or fraud. It’s one thing to choose a job because the alternatives look worse. It’s quite another to find yourself cheated out of your pay at the end of the day or, worse, held captive on a citrus farm with hundreds of other workers and threatened with death if you try to leave. (The latter scenario is a real case in South Florida, where employers Ramiro, Juan, and José Ramos were convicted in 2002 of extortion and slavery.)
But there’s another problem with the argument, a factor that’s in play even with enterprises that deal with their workers honestly and nonviolently. Yes, sometimes what look like lousy conditions to us are the best option an employee has, and if you shut down their workplace they’ll be even worse off. But sometimes the only reason those conditions are the least bad choice available is because the other possibilities have been cut off by legal fiat.
I’m referring not just to illegal immigrants, who for obvious reasons have little recourse if they’re defrauded or enslaved, but to guest workers, who come here under strict rules that prevent them from changing jobs, let alone striking out on their own. This isn’t free labor operating in an open marketplace. It’s a work force whose power and mobility has been limited by law.
There’s no excuse for stealing from your workers or for forcibly keeping them on the job. But crackdowns on abusive employers will bring little justice if the result for their victims is a one-way ticket home. I ate at the Charles Street Kawasaki two or three times myself, before the immigration gendarmes rolled in, and I remember that the workers were friendly, helpful people. I even recall tipping a bit more than usual, not realizing my money would end up in someone else’s pocket. If they were treated as poorly as the government says they were, then those workers certainly deserve a chance to be free of Kawasaki’s clutches. Not to be sent back to Asia or Latin America, but to find a better job, openly and legally, at the Italian restaurant across the street.
Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).
Don’t Bad-Mouth Unskilled Immigrants
You don’t have to be a computer whiz to be good for the U.S.A.
Tyler Cowen and Daniel M. Rothschild
Google, Yahoo!, and Sun Microsystems were all founded by immigrants—from Russia, Taiwan, and India, respectively. There is nearly universal agreement that skilled immigrants are an enormous boon to the American economy.
But what about the millions of unskilled laborers who arrive in this country every year? Recent public discourse would have us believe they poach American jobs, lower wages, and sponge off welfare. Yet economic research suggests a different picture: Unskilled immigrants are good for the U.S., and the U.S. is good for them.
Until the late 1990s, when a boom in native-born self-employment occurred, immigrants were more likely than natives to work for themselves. Immigrant small businesses, from the Korean corner market to the Mexican landscaping service, are as American as apple pie. The labor market is not a zero-sum game with a finite number of jobs; immigrants create their own work.
A key question for economists has been whether the influx raises or lowers “native” American wages. U.C.-Berkeley’s David Card, who studied patterns in different U.S. cities, concludes that immigration has not lowered wages for American workers. George Borjas of Harvard counters that immigration reduced the wages of high school dropouts by 7.4 percent between 1980 and 2000.
Most economists have sided with Card. For one thing, his studies better capture the notion that immigrant labor makes work easier for all of us and brings new skills to the table. Additionally, as Card points out, the percentage of native-born high school dropouts has fallen sharply during the last few decades, creating a shortage of unskilled laborers that immigrants fill. In 1980 one out of three American adults had less than a high school education; by 2000 this figure had fallen to less than one in five.
Gianmarco Ottaviano of the University of Bologna and Giovanni Peri of the National Bureau of Economic Research have shown that immigrants and low-skilled American workers fill very different roles in the economy. For instance, 54 percent of tailors in the U.S. are foreign-born, compared with less than 1 percent of crane operators. A similar discrepancy exists between plaster-stucco masons (44 percent immigrant) and sewer-pipe cleaners (less than 1 percent foreign-born). Immigrants come to the United States with different skills, inclinations, and ideas; they are not looking to simply copy the behavior of American workers.
New arrivals, by producing more goods and services, also keep prices down across the economy. Even Borjas, the favorite economist of immigration restrictionists, admits the net gain to the U.S. from immigration is about $7 billion annually.
During the coming decades, the need for immigrant labor will increase, according to demographers. The baby boom generation will need more health care and more nursing homes. The upcoming Medicare fiscal crunch will require more and younger laborers to finance the program.
Some argue that we should employ a more restrictive policy that allows in only immigrants with “needed” skills. But this assumes the government can read the economic tea leaves. Most bureaucrats in 1980 did not foresee the building or biomedical booms of the 1990s, or the decline of auto manufacturing. We should not trust government to know what kind of laborers we will need 20 years from now. The ready presence of immigrant workers, including the unskilled, makes all businesses easier to start and thus spurs American creativity.
We should not forget that immigration is good for the immigrants themselves. It often means the difference between extreme poverty and the good life.
Card finds that post-1965 immigrants, according to U.S. census data, have a good record of assimilation. Second-generation children have, on average, higher education and wages than the children of natives. Of the 39 largest country-of-origin groups, the sons of 33 and the daughters of 32 of those groups have surpassed the educational levels of natives’ children.
Finally, it is fitting that both Card and Borjas are themselves immigrants. Borjas emigrated from Cuba when he was 12, and Card came from Canada to earn his doctorate at Princeton. Their very debate shows how immigrants have become central to the American enterprise.
Yes, immigration brings some real costs. But most of these problems are concentrated in a few border and urban areas; federal policy can help correct the imbalances.
Americans have heard from politicians for more than 200 years that immigration will cause the sky to fall. Yet each time it has only made us stronger.
Tyler Cowen is professor of economics at George Mason University and general director of its Mercatus Center. Daniel M. Rothschild is associate director of the Global Prosperity Initiative at the Mercatus Center. An earlier version of this article appeared in The Los Angeles Times.
Who’s Milking Who?
Illegal aliens pay more in taxes than they impose in costs.
The fact that illegal immigrants pay taxes at all will come as news to many Americans. A stunning two-thirds of illegal immigrants pay Medicare, Social Security, and personal income taxes. Yet nativists such as Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) have popularized the notion that illegal aliens are a colossal drain on the nation’s hospitals, schools, and welfare programs, consuming services they don’t pay for.
In reality, the 1996 welfare reform bill disqualified illegal immigrants from nearly all means-tested government programs, including food stamps, housing assistance, Medicaid, and Medicare-funded hospitalization. The only services that illegals can still get are emergency medical care and K–12 education.
Last year, Tancredo and his allies nevertheless pushed a bill through the House that would criminalize all aid to illegal aliens—even private acts of charity by priests, nurses, and social workers. Under this bill, someone running a soup kitchen that offers so much as a free lunch to an illegal could face up to five years in prison and asset forfeiture.
The Senate immigration bill that collapsed earlier this year would have tempered these draconian penalties for private aid. But no one, Democrat or Republican, seems to oppose the idea of withholding public services from illegal immigrants. Indeed, Congress has already passed a law that requires everyone who gets Medicaid, the government-funded health care program for the poor, to offer proof of U.S. citizenship so we can avoid “theft of these benefits by illegal aliens,” as Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) puts it.
But immigrants aren’t flocking to the United States to mooch off the government. According to a study by the Urban Institute, the 1996 welfare reform effort dramatically reduced the use of welfare by undocumented immigrant households, exactly as intended. Another important development happened in 1996: The Internal Revenue Service began issuing identification numbers to enable illegal immigrants who don’t have Social Security numbers to file tax returns.
One might have imagined that people earning meager wages and fearing deportation would take a pass on the IRS’s scheme. Not so. Each year close to 8 million of the 12 million or so illegal aliens in the country file personal income tax returns using the alternative numbers, contributing billions of dollars to federal coffers. They probably hope paying taxes will one day help them acquire legal status—a plaintive expression of their desire to play by the rules and come out of the shadows.
What’s more, aliens who are not self-employed (and aren’t paid in cash) have Social Security and Medicare taxes automatically withheld from their paychecks. Since undocumented workers have only fake Social Security numbers, they’ll never be able to collect the benefits these taxes are meant to pay for. Last year, the revenues from these fake numbers, which the Social Security Administration stashes in its “earnings suspense file,” added up to 10 percent of the Social Security surplus. The file is growing, on average, by more than $50 billion a year.
Beyond federal taxes, all illegals automatically pay state sales taxes that contribute to the upkeep of public facilities they use (such as roads) and pay property taxes through their rent that contribute to the schooling of their children. The nonpartisan National Research Council found that when the taxes paid by the children of low-skilled immigrant families (most of whom are illegal) are factored in, parents and children combined contribute an average of $80,000 more to federal coffers than they consume over their lifetimes.
It’s true that many illegal migrants impose a strain on border communities on whose doorstep they first arrive, broke and unemployed. To solve this problem equitably, these communities might receive the surplus taxes the federal government collects from immigrants.
Immigrant bashers are using the “costs” of undocumented aliens to whip up indignation against people they don’t want here in the first place. In the real world, illegals are not milking the government. If anything, it’s the other way around.
Shikha Dalmia is a senior analyst at the Reason Foundation. A version of this article was distributed by the Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.
Where’s the Mayhem?
Don’t believe the neo–Know Nothing hype.
Illegal immigration seems to have spawned a dreary debate about the merits of Mexicans, when it should be drawing attention instead to a very different matter: how to build on the luster and wonder of the American dream.
Immigration is not the pox neo-Know Nothings make it out to be. Begin with the astounding influx of illegal immigrants, the vast majority of whom hail from Mexico. While the population includes an eye-popping number of crooks, drug dealers, and would-be welfare sponges, it also provides a helpful prop for sustaining American economic growth and cultural dynamism.
Princeton University sociologist Douglas S. Massey reports that 62 percent of illegal immigrants pay income taxes (via withholding) and 66 percent contribute to Social Security. Forbes magazine notes that Mexican illegals aren’t clogging up the social-services system: Only 5 percent receive food stamps or unemployment assistance; 10 percent send kids to public schools. Skeptics counter that immigrants have clogged our hospitals, which is true—but primarily in places that offer lavish benefits to illegal immigrants.
On the work front, Hispanic unemployment has tumbled to 5.5 percent, only slightly above the national average of 4.7 percent and considerably lower than the black unemployment rate of 9.3 percent. Economist Larry Kudlow praises Hispanic entrepreneurship: “According to 2002 Census Bureau data, Hispanics are opening businesses at a rate three times faster than the national average. In addition, there were almost 1.6 million Hispanic-owned businesses generating $222 billion in revenue in 2002.”
As for crime, the picture doesn’t quite conform to conventional wisdom. Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute discovered that illegal immigrants in 2004 accounted for 95 percent of all outstanding homicide warrants in Los Angeles and two-thirds of unserved felony warrants. (Gangs, aided and abetted by laws that prevent local officials from handing illegal-immigrant criminals over to federal authorities, account for much of the mayhem.) Yet the most comprehensive survey to date of national crime data concludes, “In the small number of studies providing empirical evidence, immigrants are generally less involved in crime than similarly situated groups, despite the wealth of prominent criminological theories that provide good reasons why this should not be the case.”
Authors Ramiro Martinez Jr. and Matthew T. Lee note that the Latino homicide rate in Miami is three times that of El Paso, Texas, which has one of the nation’s largest immigrant populations. That’s not just an anomaly. Another major study, “U.S. Impacts of Mexican Immigration,” by Michael J. Greenwood and Marta Tienda, reports that “crime rates along the border are lower than those of comparable non-border cities.”
This doesn’t mean immigrants from Mexico are saints; it just means they may not be the marauding horde some make them out to be. As it turns out, crime rates in the highest-immigration states have been trending significantly downward. Total crime and property crime in California are half what they were in 1980; violent crime has fallen more than a third. The state’s Hispanic population during that time increased 120 percent. Similar trends apply in other high-traffic states, with the exception of Colorado. While Arizona’s population grew 41.8 percent between 1993 and 2003, for instance, the rates for every major category of crime fell.
Why, then, the fuss? In America today, unemployment remains low, employment is booming, wages have begun to grow in tandem with the economy, tax receipts are exploding at the federal and state levels, and the United States continues to run laps around its European and Asian economic rivals. The United States somehow has managed to absorb 10 million to 20 million illegal immigrants not only without turning into Animal Farm, but while cranking up the most impressive economic recovery in two decades and the most prolonged period of declining crime in a century—all in the teeth of the post-9/11 recession, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the double-whammy hurricane season of 2005.
Rather than panicking, the political class might want to take a deep breath and attempt a little common sense. Virtually everyone agrees that we need to secure our borders, deport lawbreakers and slackers among the illegal-immigrant population, and revitalize the notion of citizenship by insisting that prospective citizens master the English language and the fundaments of American history and culture.
The Statue of Liberty symbolizes America’s affection for the world’s tired and poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Before someone razes Lady Liberty and decides to erect a wall to “protect” America from the world, shouldn’t we at least spend a little time trying to get our facts straight?
Tony Snow is President Bush’s press secretary. This article was distributed by Creators Syndicate in March 2006, a month before he took his present position.
Breathe Free, Huddled Masses
A personal take on illegal immigration
the immigration debate says regaining control of our borders is a vital national security issue. The other says extending a welcome to all who want to live peacefully and work in our midst is a fundamental American value.
This debate touches many Americans in a personal way as children and descendants of immigrants. It is doubly personal for me: I came to the United States with my family in 1980, at the age of 17, from what was then the Soviet Union.
Time and time again, we have heard calls for decisive action to halt illegal immigration. So far, no tough new laws or policies have succeeded in stemming the flood. Anti-immigration conservatives lament that this failure is due to a fundamental lack of will to really do something about the problem. Many are outraged by proposals to offer amnesty and legalization to illegal aliens, moves they say reward people for breaking the law.
But most Americans are deeply conflicted. A recent Washington Post/ABC News poll found three-quarters of Americans think the government is doing too little to prevent illegal immigration. Yet three out of five, across party lines, are in favor of allowing illegal immigrants who have lived here for years to gain legal status and eventually become citizens. Only one in five endorsed the House bill that would make it a felony to live in this country illegally.
So why don’t more people nod in agreement when right-wing talk show hosts thunder, “But they broke the law!”? Maybe because they instinctively understand the peculiar nature of the law in this case.
During the recent pro-immigrant rallies, a guest on the Fox News morning show Fox & Friends jeered at the demonstrators by announcing that he and some friends were having a rally in support of “illegal murders.” This dumb joke highlights something important: There is no such thing as legal murder. Murder is illegal by definition, while immigration is not. The same act—entering the United States—is legal for some people and illegal for others, sometimes depending on something as arbitrary as a lottery. Law, in this case, may be more a technicality than a matter of justice. How many of the same conservatives who are enraged by the idea of amnesty for illegal residents would be in favor of jailing, or even putting out of business, a woman who had run an unlicensed home-based day care center, providing safe and excellent care?
Yes, we need more effective border control, particularly in an age when terrorism is a real concern. But it should also be a concern that anti-immigrant panic has been all too often responsible for ungenerous and sometimes downright inhumane policies unworthy of America. After the “immigration reform” of 1996, people who were brought to this country as children and never went through the process of getting citizenship were suddenly subject to deportation to native countries they barely remembered because of a minor brush with the law, such as a barroom fight at the age of 20, that suddenly made them “deportable.” People adjudged by immigration agents to be attempting to enter the country illegally, often because of a glitch in the paperwork, have been barred from reapplying to enter this country for the next five years—even if they are married to Americans. Policies like these are far more outrageous and far more damaging to America than extending forgiveness to people who came here illegally and are earning an honest living.
When my family and I came here, we automatically received refugee status on the grounds that we were fleeing oppression. While I am immensely grateful for this, I am also well aware that I got a special break due to Cold War politics, and that a lot of people around the world who had as good a claim to escaping oppression or persecution did not get the same break. So my reaction is not, “I came here legally and that makes me better,” but more like, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Contributing Editor Cathy Young is a columnist for The Boston Globe, where an earlier version of this article appeared.
Immigration and the Welfare State
The real root of the problem
Given the poor quality of ideas on the legislative table, the best outcome of this year’s debate over immigration reform would be to let the whole matter peter out, unresolved, for another season. Then pro- and anti-immigrant policymakers can try again, each side potentially strengthened—the pro-immigrant side by an impressive level of demonstrated public support, the anti-immigrant side by horror over the level of demonstrated public support from brown-skinned people waving flags of other nations and seeming to want to refight Polk’s War over who rules California.
Ultimately, how many people waved which sort of flag, or how many years you can have been here illegally before you have to leave and come back, or what particular hoop you are asked to jump through by whatever law does eventually pass, will have little effect on the forces that make immigration a recurring and increasingly tedious American telenovela. The solution to the legal crisis immigration represents won’t come through immigration law itself, which again and again has proven itself useless at fully stemming the irresistible tides of human desire for a better life. No matter how much money is spent or how the law is jiggered, it is not immigration policy that has created unnecessary tears and strains in America’s social order. Rather, the welfare state is at the root of any legitimate claim that immigration (legal or illegal) is an assault on the American nation. (There are plenty of illegitimate complaints, based merely on distaste for the often-imaginary hell of running into Spanish-speaking people in day-to-day life or seeing some flag not of your nation, but such arguments do not deserve consideration.)
While writing this article, in a Hollywood neighborhood more Russian than Latino, I had two experiences with small groups of Spanish-speaking probably-Mexicans. (I’m not as skilled as Latin Americans tend to be at distinguishing natives of one country from another.) They were two trios of men: one unloading lawnmowers and other gardening equipment from the back of a pickup truck, the other walking out of the 7-Eleven a block away, with Big Gulps and hot dogs in their hands
A week before, those hands might have been clutching a Mexican flag on an American street. But they were now handing over American dollars, probably earned providing a service to an American, to an American 7-Eleven, manned by people who spoke a language among themselves neither English nor Spanish. (I was able to get my own Big Gulp and chips from them regardless.) While I won’t pretend my own personal anecdotes define the overall meaning of any mass social phenomenon (though anti-immigration forces seem to think every tale of an illegal immigrant killer is pure policy gold), I almost never see Hispanic beggars or street people in my relatively street-people-heavy section of Hollywood.
Without a welfare state, my experience in my neighborhood would exemplify the meaning and impact of immigrants in America. Any immigrant, legal or not, will tend to be a producer of some good an American wants to pay him or her for, and simultaneously a consumer of some good an American wants to sell. The power and reach of Spanish-language media in L.A. shows supply of people creating its own demand, creating economic growth. Businesses can and do arise out of supplying the wants and needs of legal or illegal immigrants; what they directly pay in taxes or take in social services is no meaningful measure of what they are adding to or subtracting from the commonweal; human beings are indeed the ultimate resource, green card or no.
The free market, as it usually does, has created a system of mutually satisfactory interdependence, all of us serving each other and helping each other get what we want. The welfare state, in all its manifestations from medical care to schooling to pure giveaways, creates a negative sum game in which resources are forcibly redistributed, making some a problem, or a perceived potential problem, to others and allowing demagogues to obsess over precious “public” resources scarfed up by the invading Other.
As long as that system is around to breed resentment and anger—along with the counter-resentment and counter-anger seen in the streets of L.A. last spring—immigration will continue as a political crisis, no matter how many cycles of jiggering with immigration law, or protesting it, we go through.
California’s Proposition 187, passed in 1994, attempted to limit the provision of government services to illegal immigrants. Whatever the motives of the initiative’s supporters, it was on the right track to a world where any immigrant ought to be, and can be, welcome: one where they are pure contributors at the same time to their own well-being and to everyone else’s. That anti-welfare state philosophy writ large is the only permanent and just solution to the immigration conundrum. But it involves a significant reduction in federal power, money, and authority, rather than an expansion of it. Strangely, it’s a no-go in today’s Washington.
Senior Editor Brian
Doherty is the author of This Is Burning Man, which will be
released in paperback this summer by BenBella Books, and the
forthcoming Radicals for Capitalism