It’s well passed time for an adult conversation about illegal immigration and immigration reform. No, not the one that Democrats and Republicans have been having but rather an adult conversation. The Democrats’ leadership has been treating illegal immigration like a voter registration drive in hopes of securing the monolithic vote of another minority population through an expansive welfare system. There are loud voices – too loud often – in the Republican Party who want to treat illegal immigration as a forced march to our southern border.
There are three reasons that we have a significant illegal immigration problem – none of them have to do with the existing immigration laws.
- Jobs were plentiful in America and they paid significantly more than jobs that were available in the native land of those illegal immigrants. American business benefited significantly from the pool of available cheap labor and many businesses were able to pay substandard wages and impose harsh working conditions knowing full well that the illegal immigrants were virtually without recourse for fear of being deported. There was economic opportunity for both the illegal immigrants and the employers.
- Welfare and educational benefits were generous in America. So much so that a life on welfare was significantly better than what was being experienced in the illegal immigrants’ native countries. Most of the nations from which the illegal immigrants came deny similar benefits to those who enter their countries illegally. Even though laws exist on a state and national level that would deny welfare and educational benefits to those who have entered the country illegally, politicians chose to ignore those laws in order to curry favor and, potentially, votes. One of the worst was Oregon. The administrations of Govs. John Kitzhaber and Ted Kulongoski adopted a policy of not inquiring as to the legal residency of those who applied for welfare. (Messrs. Kitzhaber and Kulongoski carried the program further by extending the “don’t ask” policy to driver licenses resulting in the issuance of over 150,000 Oregon driver licenses to those without proof of status. In Oregon, a driver license is the gateway to voter registration thus accomplishing the “voter registration” goal suggested above.)
- The national leadership – Democrat and Republican alike – chose not to secure the border. With the promise of a better life via low paying jobs or welfare coupled with educational opportunities for their children, illegal immigrants poured over the border in waves that created traffic jams on the walking trails in the four southern border states. It is unclear what motivated the politicians but it certainly was not the well being of America’s existing citizens or even those entering illegally. One suspects that, like virtually every decision made in Washington, that the primary motive was political – each side hoping to secure future voter loyalty and both sides securing campaign contributions from businesses that benefited significantly from the pool of cheap labor and lack of recourse.
An adult conversation regarding illegal immigration would suggest that you start with the causes of the problem and then move to resolution of the existing effects of the problem previously created. That means:
- Secure the borders with fences or other physical barriers. Satellites, drones and electronics are valuable but only as a secondary system. In those areas of the border states where the border has been secured with physical barriers coupled with human surveillance illegal entry rates have dropped dramatically. In those areas where we have relied on rugged terrain as a natural barrier there has been little decline that cannot be attributed to the current recession. President Ronald Reagan’s amnesty plan coupled with the assertion of secure borders fell short because the latter secure borders never occurred. The lasting effect of Mr. Reagan’s amnesty plan was to encourage a new wave of illegal immigration with the aspect that there would be yet another amnesty period in the future. The illegal immigration problem cannot be cured without secure borders. Resolution of this must be the beginning point of any adult conversation on illegal immigration.
- Adopt state and federal laws penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants. There are existing federal systems for verifying whether a potential employee is an illegal immigrant or not. The penalty for failure to comply should be harsh. Arizona has such a law that imposes a substantial fine for the first offense and loss of business license for any subsequent offense – that is a death penalty for business. You simply cannot expect those who live in poverty in other nations to abandon efforts to enter illegally if the reward is a better job than what they can obtain in their native country. The job incentive for illegal entry must be removed and that means the burden must fall on those offering the jobs.
- Adopt and enforce state and federal laws denying welfare benefits to those who have entered illegally. Just as the job incentive must be removed, the incentive for welfare must also be removed. Federal laws should be tightened in a fashion that would deny federal welfare funds to those states that do not enact and enforce such laws. It is a process that the federal government is already familiar with since they have used it routinely to enforce educational standards, access to abortion and speed limits for automobiles.
Those measures will not resolve the problem of thirty years of abuse of the existing immigration laws by both political parties which has left us with a presence of 12-14 million illegal immigrants. It is unreasonable to expect that we can deport 12-14 million people. The logistics alone make such an effort foolish. Add to that the complicity of the government in encouraging illegal entry and you are hard pressed to champion repressive measures that could result in tearing apart families that have been here for decades and generations.
A better solution is to create a “guest worker” program available to those already here illegally. There are several salutary effects to such a program in addition to granting a “legal” status to those already here:
- Such a program would provide administrative information as to how large the problem actually is. The estimates of 12-14 million illegal immigrants is just that – an estimate – the problem is probably much greater given the reluctance of the illegal immigrant community to be forthcoming about their status.
- It will provide an opportunity for a background check as to the criminal status (and terrorist status) of those registering. Secondarily it will isolate those who refuse to register and allow an orderly deportation of that significantly reduced population.
- It will provide an opportunity for monitoring whether such registrants are regularly employed. Lack of employment without cause over a sustained period can result in deportation.
- It would provide a clear path for those registering to seek protection under current employment laws (hours of labor, wage standards, discrimination prohibitions, etc.) and to avail themselves of temporary welfare payments such as unemployment benefits. In addition, it would qualify those paying into the Social Security System to receive benefits in retirement.
- It will provide registrants the ability to obtain licenses for driving and a host of operational licenses for various equipment.
To be sure, such a guest worker program should not include a preferred pathway to citizenship. The only way to ensure that it does not is to require those benefiting from such a program to return to their county of origin to begin the quest for citizenship.
There is still the lingering problem of the so-called “anchor babies” – children born in America from parents who entered illegally. I don’t have a solution for that problem but my guess is that it will involve a cut-off point where children born after a certain point will denied citizenship and be subjected to the “guest worker” restrictions as are their parents.
But don’t hold your breath that we are going to have an adult conversation about illegal immigration. The politicians that control that conversation are concerned primarily with the acquisition and retention of power. Every solution will be tested against that requirement and the underlying problem will be ignored.