A Just Immigration Policy Befitting America
Does anyone think our current immigration policies are working?
Over the past two years, the Biden administration has released two million illegal immigrants into the United States, a total that exceeds the level of legal immigration over the same period. The total number of people who have entered the country illegally over that period is surely much larger. Few of them will ever leave. No great nation can tolerate such mockery of its laws or abdicate responsibility for the boundaries of its community.
Yet we have been stuck in a political stalemate on the issue for decades. The progressive preference for open borders, strongly supported by a corporate lobby eager for cheap labor, is deeply unpopular with the American people and efforts to promote amnesty have been repeatedly rejected. Unfortunately, conservatives have been equally unsuccessful in advancing an alternative, too often emphasizing a negative message of what we are against without articulating a vision of what all Americans will gain from an immigration system that works. Once we do that, we will win.
First, we must emphasize that a clear, rational, and firmly enforced immigration policy is reasonable, moral, and essential. Even the most ardent supporters of very high immigration levels cannot be happy with the current surge in, among other things, child labor, cartel profits, human trafficking, and drug smuggling. Not only is this state of affairs producing vast human misery; it is fundamentally inconsistent with the principles of justice on which America is built.
Second, we must emphasize that we know how to end this national catastrophe. It can be done. The United States has the right, the obligation, and the ability to choose its own immigration policy to advance the national interest. Those who say it cannot be done, in fact, simply do not want to do it. By undermining enforcement and aggravating the crisis, they hope to make an open border appear inevitable so that, like the weather, Americans don’t even see it as a political issue. Refusal to enforce the law sets off a vicious cycle, encouraging further violations that make enforcement even more difficult. For a decade, I have been saying, “They will pass any law, as long as it will not work.”
Conservatives must always remind people that this situation is outrageous and untenable, and that we can fix it. We can replace the vicious cycle with a virtuous one, in which a clear message goes out to the world that we will defend our sovereign borders and that unlawful entrants will be stopped and deported. As we regain our credibility, violations will become less common, and thus easier to prevent. We must close the maddening array of loopholes that activist lawyers and judges have carved out of the law and give our Border Patrol officers the support and resources they need to do their job.
To pass good law, leaders need to unify and promote vigorously an effective bill, explain why it is needed, leave it on the floor for extended debate, and expose the special interests that are blocking it. The Border Security and Enforcement Act, sponsored by Congressmen Tom McClintock (R-CA) and Andy Biggs (R-AZ), makes a good start in correcting some of the most egregious problems. It is unlikely to be signed into law during this Congress, given the current constellation of political forces, but it offers a credible alternative to the status quo and can force both sides to explain their positions to the American people.
Notably, the bill mandates the use of E-Verify for all employers. E-Verify is an online tool that allows employers to verify that new hires are legally authorized to work in the United States. It has proven remarkably effective, but its use is still voluntary.
An employer mandate may seem an odd inclusion in a border bill, but the invocation of E-Verify highlights the third critical step for conservatives: articulating a positive vision. What is immigration policy for? Yes, we need to make the case for an immigration policy that is clear, just, and enforced. So, the first step is explaining why today’s policies are unclear, unjust, and obviously unenforced, and the second step is showing that better policies are available. The final step must be to explain what we want to see a better policy achieve. After all, if illegality were the only problem at the border, then we could just make all immigration legal, and the problem would disappear. But, as an E-Verify mandate suggests, other concerns are at stake.
E-Verify, of course, is designed in large part to protect American workers. Our vision for immigration should focus on ensuring that American workers are protected, especially the most marginal ones whom employers would rather ignore: ex-convicts, recovering addicts, the handicapped and developmentally disabled, even teenagers and single mothers who might require accommodations that employers would rather not make. Economists claim that technological progress has weakened the demand for, and wages of, less skilled workers, and they warn that this trend will continue. How can an American afford to raise a family while competing with an unlimited flow of workers desperate to work for any wage? The brutal fact is that businesses will always lust for cheap labor and see families as none of their concern; economists are happy so long as there are more people to buy more colas, thus boosting GDP.
A positive immigration policy would use firm enforcement to admit highly skilled people who can deliver significant economic gains, while restricting the admission of less-skilled people who are more likely to earn low wages in our market and need to rely on taxpayers for support—not because of any moral shortcoming on their part, but because that’s the economic reality that we face. Everyone knows that wealth disparity is a crucial concern for our society. In a tight labor market with low immigration and strict enforcement, the market power of marginalized workers increases. With so many low-wage Americans struggling already, an immigration policy that gives them power to demand better wages simply makes sense, while one that weakens their position while adding yet more people in an even weaker position does not.
Finally, a positive vision should strive for an immigration policy that fosters assimilation and national unity, especially in these confused times. America is a generous nation, and we should continue to be. The one million legal immigrants that we admit each year is an enormous number, and for that level to be sustainable we must be able to decide whom we admit and focus on immigrants who can contribute productively and prosper here. But we also need greater investment in outreach to embrace legal newcomers when they arrive, and a recommitment to America as a melting pot that brings people together in a common culture instead of dividing ourselves against each other. Good examples of steps in that direction are an initiative to help immigrants prepare for the citizenship test and the opening of Hispanic Community Centers in a number of cities.
Making the case for why we should control immigration will be essential to achieving an immigration policy Americans can be proud of. It can inspire and energize supporters to undertake the hard work of repair and is key to persuading the persuadable to our side.