It's Time to Face Facts About Illegal Immigration

Efforts to make life miserable for those who are not supposed to be here have not made them leave.


If rain is pouring and you don't want to get wet, you have a few choices. You can stay inside. You can put on a raincoat, grab an umbrella and brave the torrent. Or you can step outside and demand that it stop.

This last option has obvious advantages. It doesn't interfere with your daily routine, and it doesn't require rain gear. The only flaw is that it doesn't work.

lungstruck / photo on flickr

Congress faces a similar choice when it comes to immigration laws. A tentative consensus has formed around a package of changes that would let many people living here illegally stay and eventually gain citizenship. But some conservatives are opposed to what they deride as "amnesty." They insist instead on going on an enforcement spending spree, while barring undocumented foreigners from any hope of becoming Americans.

Both ideas reside in a dimension far removed from reality. Efforts to secure the border have been radically intensified in recent years without stopping people from sneaking in. Efforts to make life miserable for those who are not supposed to be here have not made them leave.

Conservatives usually recognize the futility of resisting powerful market forces. They know that price controls and minimum wage laws have a way of backfiring. But some of them exhibit a touching faith that with enough diligence, the federal government can seal off the U.S. labor market from the world.

It can't. When a relatively poor country whose jobs pay little shares a long border with a rich one whose jobs pay much better, many of those in Country A will migrate to Country B—even if it means they must pay large fees to criminal smugglers, risk death in crossing, do dirty and unpleasant work and endure the constant danger of being arrested and evicted.

Today, the government spends nearly 10 times as much on the Border Patrol as it did in 1993. What does Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, propose now? Tripling the number of Border Patrol officers and quadrupling outlays on surveillance gadgets. But if carpet-bombing the Rio Grande with cash hasn't worked so far, it probably isn't going to work in the future.

The trouble is that border agents have to succeed every time a particular migrant tries to cross, but the migrant has to succeed only once. A 2009 study from the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego found that "of those who are caught, all but a tiny minority eventually get through—between 92 and 98 percent."

The enemies of the Senate reform plan often sound as though they have a much better solution. But the alternative is not some magic formula that will rid the nation of those residing here without legal permission. It's merely to consign them to inferior status, forever. It's the status quo.

What's wrong with that? Just about everything. It means 11 million people, including 1.7 million brought here as children (the "dreamers"), will go on living among us without the protections of the law.

As a result, they are more likely to be underpaid, more apt to work off the books, more vulnerable to crime and less likely to pay the taxes they owe. There's not much upside for any of us.

If the concern is that undocumented foreigners will impose a fiscal burden, it makes sense to get them out in the open—where they will remit taxes like other legal workers. They can already get free emergency medical care, and their kids can attend public schools. It's not as though the current situation is a fiscal bargain.

One of those young dreamers who is barred from going to college or joining the military is more likely to become a public burden than one who is free to pursue her vocational ambitions. A youngster whose parents are deported may not be able to get the education to be a productive citizen.

If the concern is that unauthorized immigrants drive down the wages of American workers, it likewise makes no sense to keep them in the underground economy, where unscrupulous employers can pay them less than a normal market wage. Once they can work legally, their wages are likely to rise, reducing any downward pressure on earnings.

No one relishes the task of finding useful ways to address the longstanding results of illegal immigration, but they require attention. Congress can make an omelet, or it can try to unscramble the eggs.