Bush's Border Buffoonery

Non-binding, non-militarized non-solutions to a non-problem


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

In the same vein, Bush made it clear that "Comprehensive Immigration Reform Must Include A Tamper-Resistant Identification Card For Every Legal Foreign Worker So Businesses Can Verify The Legal Status Of Their Employees." But doesn't that mean that all workers—regardless of country of origin or citizenship—will have to show a "tamper-resistant identification card"? Let's leave aside for the moment that there ain't no such thing as a tamper-resistant anything: 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…). Oh, and hey, the president "opposes amnesty" but wants a guest-worker program that will let most of the 12 million illegals in the country gain citizenship.

How will this play out? 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 have 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–are in favor of less-draconian legislation than House Republicans. 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."

This much seems certain: "U.S. policies aimed at controlling the flow of newcomers historically have led to unexpected consequences." As Reason Contributing Editor and San Francisco Chronicle reporter Carolyn Lochhead noted recently, "Many of the most radical changes in the origins and numbers of America's vast flow of immigrants were unintentionally set in motion, experts say, by politicians who expected an entirely different result." 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.

For instance, the supporters of 1965's major immigration reform predicted that the changes would marginally boost immigration from Europe and have no effect on folks coming from Latin America and Asia. In fact, writes Lochhead, "Within a decade, the proportion of European to Asian and Latin American immigrants had reversed." Princeton University sociologist Douglas S. Massey, co-director of the Mexican Migration Project, says that tougher border enforcement—a consequence of reforms in 1986 and 1996–has had a "perverse effect." He explains, "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 relatively less costly population of male workers into a much more costly population of families."

Go figure. There's something else to consider, too. 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, worlds 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 they're heading to. 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.

And that 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 of 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 workers 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 immigrants despite rhetoric to the contrary. As 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" (here's hoping he brings that POV to bear in the White House). 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 most Latinos are Spanish-free by the third generation.

Immigration restrictionists argue, not without some merit, that illegal immigrants don't fully pay into 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 66 percent of illegals pay Medicare, Social Security, and income taxes, and all pay sales 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 these 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). That wouldn't require "not militarizing" the Mexican border and most of the rest of what the president talked about it. And it wouldn't require time-wasting, non-binding Senate resolutions about whether to sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in English or other languages. It's a shame that Bush didn't put such a plan on the table for discussion–just one more wasted opportunity in a tenure filled with them.