Having suffered not one but several humiliating defeats on Tuesday, Republicans are in danger of embracing “comprehensive” immigration reform — which is to say, amnesty — out of panic. The GOP does need to do better among Hispanics and other voters, but this is not the way to achieve that — and, more important, it is bad policy. A formal policy of refusing to enforce the law is not obviously the best substitute for an informal policy of refusing to enforce the law.
But first, credit should be given where it is due: The Obama administration, by keeping economic growth at anemic levels, has managed to control illegal immigration better than most of its predecessors. The Reagan-era Immigration Reform and Control Act conferred amnesty upon some 3 million illegals in exchange for promises of stepped-up enforcement at the border and in the back office, but the sanctions never quite materialized. Even though some improved security measures were implemented after 9/11, the Bush years saw a 40 percent increase in the population of illegals, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Legal immigration, which is largely driven by our government’s preference that the extended families of previous immigrants be able to join them here, does not closely track the fortunes of the economy. Illegal immigration, on the other hand, is very strongly correlated with the availability of work. It may turn out not to be a growing problem in Obama’s second term, so long as we can count on the Obama administration to provide relatively few employment opportunities for illegal immigrants, along with legal immigrants, the native born, and everybody else not attached to the AFSCME or Big Wind.
Our immigration system is in need of deep reform, but amnesty is not the first item on intelligent reformers’ to-do list, if indeed it belongs on the list at all.
All decent people have a measure of sympathy for those who, driven by desperation, come illegally to the United States seeking work to provide for themselves and their families. That they so frequently work at low wages in miserable conditions and that they are vulnerable to every kind of abuse is reason for deeper sympathy still. But the solution to their plight is not to abandon the law, any more than the solution to the plight of Les Misérables is to legalize the theft of bread. The rule of law exists to alleviate misery, not to mandate it.
We know from historical experience that immigration amnesties serve only to encourage yet more illegal immigration, and the suffering and disorder that go along with it. Illegal immigrants constitute a permanent underclass, the growth of which is in the long-term interest of neither the citizens of the United States nor of those immigrants who aspire to citizenship. Stopgap measures such as “temporary guest worker” programs simply convert that underclass from de facto to de jure.
There are many steps we can and should take toward improving our national immigration regime. It should be easier for those with job offers — particularly highly skilled, English-speaking professionals — to gain long-term residency in the United States and to embark on a path to citizenship if they so choose. And for those who are here illegally, especially those who were brought here as young children, our policy options are not restricted to amnesty or round-ups and mass deportations. As anybody who has ever missed a credit-card payment can attest, we have more than sufficient information technology to identify whether people who are cashing paychecks, renting homes, or transacting ordinary business are in fact legally authorized to do so. Until the borders are physically secured, our most effective and most humane option is steady, consistent, judicious workplace enforcement. We do not lack the national means to enforce the law, only the political will to do so. And even if our immigration system is broadly liberalized, the law still will need to be enforced. Non-enforcement simply is not a viable permanent state of affairs. Law enforcement would be as necessary after an amnesty as it is today.