Immigration to U.S. Is No Open-and-Shut Case

<i> Max Mont is executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee</i>

Vietnamese boat people beseech us for rescue, Central Americans flee here from the ravages of civil war, Africans and Asians seek succor from famine and pestilence, others around the world search for release from poverty and oppression--all reach out for fresh hope and new opportunity. Can we do it all?

These questions have a special urgency now: Congress is authorized to close out sanctions against employers who hire undocumented persons by joint resolution of both houses during a 30-day period commencing Nov. 6, and some immigrant advocacy groups are pressing hard for such action.

After implementing the Immigration Control and Reform Act of 1986, moral imperatives impel a further revision of U.S. in-migration (immigration and refugee) policy in a more humane and generous spirit. At the same time, Americans are confronted with an anguishing question from which there is no escape: Should the United States have totally open borders? If not, then what should the limits be and how should they be enforced?

In the debate on in-migration policy, little has been said about the actual numbers entering the United States. Here are facts:


During the 10 years ending Dec. 31, 1987, there were 6,680,908 immigrants, refugees and asylum-seekers admitted. Add most of the 3,054,857 here who applied for legalization as of this Jan. 27 (date of the last INS report; some other amnesty applicants were still eligible after that date and not included in the total). Add also at least several hundred thousand undocumented persons who were ineligible for amnesty--for a total of 10 million people in 10 years.

These in-migrants are not dispersed uniformly throughout the United States, but concentrated mainly in certain states and metropolitan areas. For example, 54.3% of all amnesty applicants reside in California.

One million in-migrants a year are not an inconsequential number. Cumulatively they have had a significant impact on the American workplace and on American life. Nevertheless, there is a profound need to do more and the United States has the resources to do better.

Guidelines for new policy should include: 1) automatic legalization of all undocumented persons already a part of American life, 2) an increase in total legal in-migration, particularly with respect to geographic neighbors, 3) maintenance of the established principle of preference for unification of families and 4) a more humane and rational system of control.


New legislation and Immigration and Naturalization Service administrative rules to extend blanket amnesty to virtually all undocumented persons (excepting those guilty of serious crimes) would be morally just and at the same time would simplify the legislative process and resolve myriad inequities and inhumanities.

That, plus an increase in the magnitude of legal immigrant and refugee admissions to the United States constitute fundamental elements of a sound and humane in-migration policy.

But progress toward realization of these goals would become practical reality only if supporters also affirm the obverse proposition: The need for some limits--however broad their dimensions--on in-migration, together with a means for enforcing them.

Wholly open U.S. borders--and open borders for all countries--are an ideal profoundly worthy of our aspirations. But neither in today’s world nor in the immediate foreseeable future is this ideal workable or realistic.

Then if there are to be limits on in-migration, a rational means of enforcement must be sought. Border patrols, border emplacements and internal monitoring can at best have limited success. Only a totalitarian state can muster the police, fortifications and pervasive internal surveillance necessary for effective border control.

Jobs are the chief (although by no means the exclusive) magnet for in-migration. Certainly, employability is a necessary condition for remaining here. Hence control of the labor market would be the logical means for controlling U.S. borders. But it is questionable whether the current system of sanctions against employers who hire undocumented persons is workable. There is evidence of widespread discrimination against workers who appear “foreign” among many employers who see this as a way to sidestep the problem.

In addition, a lively trade in forged documents has developed. Some employers are unable or unwilling to penetrate this paper curtain.

The least onerous system of job control would be to convert Social Security cards into difficult-to-counterfeit plastic (similar to a Visa or Mastercard, for example), together with a computerized record system encoded on the card.


Adversaries of the counterfeit-proof card have sometimes condemned it as an “identity card.” Actually, the requirement to show the card as a condition for obtaining employment would be no different than it is now.

Public attitudes about in-migration are murky and complex, defying simplistic analysis and assessment. Responses vary according to demographic and socioeconomic factors; ambivalences and ambiguities abound. The Field Poll showed, among other things, that in 1987, 66% of California citizens believed the problem of illegal immigration was very serious. The poll also found that 69% said the overall effect of illegal immigrants was unfavorable and 50% believed that the number of immigrants permitted to enter the U.S. should be reduced.

At the same time, however, the poll also showed that 85% of Californians believed that the foreign-born make as good or better U.S. citizens than the native-born. And an overwhelming majority believed that no distinction should be made among in-migrants on the basis of origin.

It would seem, therefore, that generalized strident anti-foreignism or chauvinism is not predominant--at least in California. Rather, there is an undefined sense that the social structure can bear only certain levels of in-migration together with an impression that the U.S. currently accepts substantial numbers of in-migrants.

In this climate it should be possible to prevail upon Americans to accommodate larger numbers of in-migrants, but Americans are not yet persuaded to accept totally open borders. It is a tragedy that we cannot rescue and airlift to our shores all the many millions of the desperate and dying and dislocated, the malnourished and disinherited, the neglected, oppressed and driven. It is painful to turn away even one human being. It is sad that we cannot welcome and provide relief for, share our means with and offer full opportunity to all who are in dire need. But it is a fact.

In the meantime, the United States today has greater in-migration than any other large, industrialized country. Expanding legalization, developing generous but manageable in-migration quotas and establishing a method of enforcement should go hand in hand.

Dodging the issue--of whether borders should be open or limits fixed--leaves the implication of favoring open borders. Condemning current sanctions against employers without offering alternatives further underscores the latter conclusion. Acceding to quotas without deciding on enforcement is simply hypocritical.