Late, great immigration debate

Today’s debate is on amnesty. Previous discussions treated the Secure Fence Act, and immigration economics. Still to come: workplace raids and the politics of immigration.

None dare call it amnesty
By Mark Krikorian
Tamar Jacoby’s reply is below.

Our discussion of amnesty should begin at the beginning, and in the beginning was the word—"amnesty.” You and other proponents of an amnesty for illegal aliens bristle at the term, and for good reason—the National Council of La Raza did focus groups in 2001 to prepare for Mexican President Vicente Fox’s amnesty push and found that Americans didn’t like the word at all. So amnesty supporters developed an array of euphemisms, including “legalization,” “regularization,” “normalization,” “earned adjustment,” “comprehensive reform,” and “path to citizenship"—there must be others, but I can’t keep track.

One of Jimmy Carter’s economic advisors found himself in a similar position, having been forbidden to use the word “recession” because it scared people; so, he called it a “banana” instead, as in “Between 1973 and 1975 we had the deepest banana that we had in 35 years.” When the banana farmers complained, he changed it to “kumquat.”

But whether President Bush and John McCain and Ted Kennedy want to call their proposal a banana or a kumquat, the substance is the same—regardless of the hoops they’d have to jump through, the illegal aliens would get to stay here legally, and that’s an amnesty.

Now, maybe an amnesty is a good idea, in which case your side should make the case for it honestly, without obfuscation.

But, of course, it’s not a good idea. In fact, it shouldn’t even be a topic for discussion until after we regain control of our immigration system. We tried your approach in 1986, combining amnesty for illegal aliens with promises of a new commitment to enforcement in the future. Naturally, those enforcement promises were abandoned as soon as the illegals got their amnesty.

An old Russian saying tells us, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

Having been burned by this 1986 experience, congressional Republicans last year insisted on an “Enforcement First” approach, demanding that real enforcement measures be implemented, funded, and shown to be working before any discussion of amnesty for the illegals already here would go forward. As Thomas Sowell wrote: “It will take time to see how various new border control methods work out in practice and there is no reason to rush ahead to deal with people already illegally in this country before the facts are in on how well the borders have been secured.”

You and President Bush and others have disagreed, claiming that immigration cannot be controlled without an amnesty and huge new guestworker programs. This is an assertion untethered to any evidence—in fact, other than beefing up our still-inadequate effort at the border itself, we’ve never seriously tried to enforce the immigration law, so how can you know it won’t work?

On the contrary, the Center for Immigration studies has used the government’s own statistics on churn in the illegal population to estimate that we could reduce the number of illegal aliens by about half in five years, mainly by using ordinary law-enforcement techniques to persuade more and more of them to give up and deport themselves. We have seen this work in certain short-lived instances where the government summoned the gumption to stand up to the elite interests that support open borders.

Applying that lesson consistently—"comprehensively”!—nationwide would test which of us is right: if the illegal population were to keep growing rapidly, despite a years-long, muscular, across-the-board effort at enforcement, then I would be open to considering amnesty for those already here and huge increases in future legal flows. But you know as well as I that the result would be quite different; a comprehensive enforcement strategy would shrink the illegal population significantly. Even Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff admitted last week that stepped up border-enforcement efforts (launched by the White House to garner congressional votes for an amnesty later this year) are actually starting to work, deterring people from sneaking across the border.

Why wouldn’t we keep that up, along with real worksite enforcement, better ID standards, full implementation of the check-in/check-out system at border crossings, better coordination among federal agencies and between the feds and state and local police—in other words, why not try a comprehensive enforcement strategy before declaring surrender and passing an amnesty?

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank that supports tighter controls on immigration.

Who can afford a war of attrition?

By Tamar Jacoby
Oh c’mon, Mark, surely even you know there are some limits to wishful thinking? Can’t you see that your attrition strategy is a fantasy—and an ugly fantasy at that?

I don’t mean to be glib about this. The 12 million illegal immigrants here in the U.S. pose a difficult moral challenge. I don’t want to reward people who have broken the law. I don’t want to encourage others to imitate them.

But the fact remains: these 12 million people live and work here—that’s almost as many people as live in the state of Pennsylvania. Some are recently arrived and transient. But many have been here for a decade or more. They own homes and businesses. They’re married to Americans. They’ve given birth to U.S.-born citizen children. Many no longer even think of the countries they come from as “home.” And we aren’t going to solve the problem of illegal immigration until we come up with some answer for them.

You say all we have to do is enforce the law, and half or more will disappear. But will they? Remember, many of them risked their lives to get here. They already live on the wrong side of the law. And most already put up with a kind of fear you and I can hardly imagine—fear that keeps them from visiting doctors and having meetings with their kids’ teachers. Do you really think you can drive them out by “coordinating” our enforcement or, as you’ve written elsewhere, making it harder for them to get drivers’ licenses and bank accounts?

Yes, of course we need to enforce the law in the workplace—there’s no excuse for our negligence in that department. But we’re not going to succeed in doing so until we bring the law more into line with reality—until we admit we need these workers and adjust our quotas accordingly. And in the meantime, if anything, rather than driving people out, your attrition strategy is only going to force them further underground—further into the arms of smugglers, document forgers and unscrupulous, exploitative employers.

The truth is, Mark—admit it—you have no solution for the 12 million. You pillory every other idea as “amnesty.” But you’re just pretending the problem will solve itself.

The real answer starts with recognizing that most of these people aren’t going anywhere and that for our own sake—the national interest—we’ve got to figure out some way to bring them out the shadows. Most of them are going to live out the rest of their lives in this country: a vast underground America—people whose names we don’t know, who have never undergone a background check and who by definition can’t begin to assimilate. This is an unacceptable affront to the rule of law and an unthinkable security risk. It’s also a shameful blot on our democratic values.

I’m happy to sit down with you or anyone else and talk about what price we want these millions to pay—what hoops exactly we need them to jump through in order to make up for the past. Yes, by all means, let’s insist that they pay fees and fines, that they prove they’re working, that they learn English, that they wait their turn in line. And I’d be open to other, more stringent requirements if the American people don’t feel these conditions are tough enough. But the one thing we cannot do is go on pretending they don’t live here—or that it’s all right for them to spend the rest of their lives as they are, a permanent worker class living forever on the margins of our society.

Call it amnesty if you like. I think amnesty is something you get for free. And nobody who thinks seriously about immigration is suggesting these people get anything for free.

What about the employers—and what about the rest of us? Haven’t we all encouraged this breaking of the law with the hypocritical charade we call our immigration policy? That’s a fair question, and the answer is of course, we have. Not only that, but we’ve all profited, rich and poor alike, from the lower prices and the doubled economic growth and the vitality immigrants are bringing to America. What to do about that larger culpability? There’s no good answer except to fix the law now. As is, our very way of life is based on millions of people, foreigners and the native born, breaking the law, day in, day out. Isn’t it obvious—that’s intolerable, and it’s way past time that we changed it.

Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Other immigration exchanges in this week’s Dust-Up

< Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4 | Day 5 >