The Neglected Truths of the Immigration Debate

Most of the public debate over the immigration bill has taken place in a fantasy world where certain fairly immutable truths are blithely ignored. The vast gulf between the political elites and the bulk of the electorate is matched by the vast gulf between the announced intentions of "comprehensive immigration reform" and the inevitable results of their proposals.

Common sense is being strikingly disregarded. And most of the politically correct media are loath to puncture the fantasies of the reformistas. The result is that a majority of the discussion is pointless, and unusually few people have been either informed or persuaded by all the public discourse. The scandalous immigration crisis has been joined by the scandalous immigration bill debate.

Leave aside the shameful accusations and implications of racism by critics of the bill heard from the highest levels of our government.

Here are six basic hard truths that must be part of any realistic attempt to improve matters.

1. Any plan that can't be enforced is no improvement.

The sluggishness and limitations of the federal bureaucracy are well-known. Where are the people going to come from to run the background checks of any illegals who are given any sort of path toward legitimate residence? If the universe of "clients" is somewhere between 12 and 20 million, think of the size of the organization necessary to process them. The services of the existing immigration bureaucracy make getting a driver's license seem like a day at the beach (ask anyone who has tried to get legal residency), so don't even think about piling on additional massive doses of money, people, rules, regulations, and all the other "inputs" government bureaucracies use to measure their importance and flex their muscles.

If we go with a brand new bureaucracy, we all know what is going to happen. The government unions see a lot of new dues paying members. Ambitious bureaucrats see vast empires to be built, volumes and volumes of regulations to be written and interpreted; and of course lawyers see many years of litigation, test cases and judicial activism ahead. This will all cost years of effort and tens of billions of dollars at least. Inspecting airline passengers is a piece of cake compared to vetting illegal aliens, and that effort has been full of waste, inefficiency and occasional frightening incompetence.

2. Poor and unskilled immigrants are expensive for the rest of society.

America may not have quite as generous a welfare state as Scandinavia and a few other European countries, but poor people, including unskilled immigrants, are as a group large net consumers of government and charitable services. Robert Rector's Heritage Foundation study put the net cost for just ten million illegal immigrants at $2.6 trillion, and more if the number is 12 million or higher.  Proposals for "ineligibility" for "welfare" ignore the deceptively-titled  "Refundable Earned Income Tax Credit" that sends a check from the government to low income workers (citizen or not), instead of them sending in a tax payment. Health care expenditures, schooling, food stamps, and a host of other government services are used by low income workers but don't qualify as welfare. Compared to the incremental sales, property and Social Security taxes received, the costs of these services must be much higher.

3. A large supply of unskilled immigrant labor benefits some groups and hurts others.

Some big companies (packing houses and hotels, most visibly) benefit from lower wages. But hundreds of thousands of small businesses depend on this labor pool for their survival. Without cheap immigrant labor there would be far fewer restaurants and other service businesses. It is no exaggeration to say that the affluent urbanites among us, a mostly liberal group, have their lifestyles underwritten by taxpayers and the rest of society. Many second income spouses would have a hard time coping without nannies, take-out food, gardeners, restaurants, and other personal services available so cheaply. Before the first immigration "reform", middle class people rarely ate out, and didn't have housekeepers, gardeners or nannies.

The biggest losers are other potential employees who compete at the low skill and low experience end of the labor market. Teenagers almost never mow lawns any more, a summer source of pocket money that was a staple for males of my generation, and which was my very first experience with paid labor, along with shoveling snow in the Minnesota winters.

The jobs that remain for teenagers require somewhat more education and skills than gardening and other manual labor, especially language skills. This leaves out some of the more poorly educated and or inexperienced minority males in particular. The first rung of the employment ladder is hard for them to find a foothold on. Once employed, their wages are driven down by the inflated supply of willing labor from poor countries, whose wage expectations are much lower than their own.

4. There is nothing wrong in insisting that immigrants serve American interests, not vice versa.

Democrats and some Republicans mouth platitudes about the sacredness of family reunification, ignoring the basic point that families can remain unified by staying at home or returning there, if unification is so important to them. Americans have no obligation to bear a burden so that the families of those who violated our laws can live together here.

Some immigrants make an immediate contribution to economic and social welfare. But there is no reason why family reunification should be used as an excuse to import even more people who will place a net burden on our taxes and charity.

Our next door neighbor Canada has successfully used a point system to select a substantial minority of its immigrants, along with those admitted for family reunification and as refugees. Where are all the media stories on the Canadian success in creating jobs and wealth by favoring those who bring money and skills? Just go to Toronto and Vancouver, two towns with great restaurants and hotels, to see all the companies started by immigrants who in effect bought their way in with investments. It is most strange that star reporters haven't been flocking there to research this aspect of the Canadian approach.

Any immigration program that gave priority to those who make an immediate net contribution to our economy, taxes and welfare would face far less opposition.


5. Citizenship is precious, and carries with it serious obligations.

There is absolutely no reason at all to grant a pathway to citizenship to those who failed to follow the law entering the United States. Humanitarian and economic considerations may weigh in favor of some form of residency or work permit for this group, but it is an intolerable denigration of the dignity of citizenship to pass it out as lagniappe for just showing up without papers. Those who violate the law have no legitimate claim to the reward of citizenship unless they bring some great benefit to the commonweal, such as military service.

Those who bemoan the prospect of a "second class" group of citizenship-ineligible residents fail to reckon with the reality that it was bad behavior which created the class and made it inferior.

6. Border security is well within our grasp, and is a precondition for the success of any other immigration changes.

Vasko Kohlmayer demonstrated two days ago that even the most absurdly inflated estimates for the cost of building a border fence are well within our means, in this American Thinker article.  Loyal reader Tom Caneris suggested that an intriguing comparison can be made with the scale of the federal project to construct tall noise barrier walls along our freeways.

Take a look at these freeway noise barriers and see that there is more than a passing resemblance to various wall designs for the border barrier.  Of course a border fence would have to be more robust, and it would not have the advantage of a nice highway to bring workers and material to the worksite. But it is not be that many orders of magnitude bigger a project than the highway noise barrier system.

Has the building of freeway noise barriers involved any national sacrifice? Have you ever fretted about how much money it has cost? Through the end of 2004, forty-five State DOTs and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico have constructed over 2,205 linear miles of barriers  at a cost of over $2.7 billion ($3.4 billion in 2004 dollars), more than the length of the US-Mexico Border (1,951 miles).

7. Successful reform will come a step at a time, not all at once in a comprehensive package.

The worst argument in favor of a "comprehensive reform" effort is still and always will be that opponents are racists. But the second worst argument is that a piecemeal approach is wrong. Thanks to Senator Kennedy's earlier handiwork, we know how easy it is for the kind-hearted gesture of amnesty to create an even bigger crisis down the road. The public is rightly skeptical of grand promises.

Until our political class is collectively willing to face these basic common sense truths, any attempt at a comprehensive solution is far more likely to make matters worse.

Instead we should start with a priority national project to build a wall. An expression of national will like that alone would send a signal of seriousness that has so far been lacking. Once that barrier is working we can look at the realistic probable outcomes of other changes.  

Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker.
Most of the public debate over the immigration bill has taken place in a fantasy world where certain fairly immutable truths are blithely ignored. The vast gulf between the political elites and the bulk of the electorate is matched by the vast gulf between the announced intentions of "comprehensive immigration reform" and the inevitable results of their proposals.

Common sense is being strikingly disregarded. And most of the politically correct media are loath to puncture the fantasies of the reformistas. The result is that a majority of the discussion is pointless, and unusually few people have been either informed or persuaded by all the public discourse. The scandalous immigration crisis has been joined by the scandalous immigration bill debate.

Leave aside the shameful accusations and implications of racism by critics of the bill heard from the highest levels of our government.

Here are six basic hard truths that must be part of any realistic attempt to improve matters.

1. Any plan that can't be enforced is no improvement.

The sluggishness and limitations of the federal bureaucracy are well-known. Where are the people going to come from to run the background checks of any illegals who are given any sort of path toward legitimate residence? If the universe of "clients" is somewhere between 12 and 20 million, think of the size of the organization necessary to process them. The services of the existing immigration bureaucracy make getting a driver's license seem like a day at the beach (ask anyone who has tried to get legal residency), so don't even think about piling on additional massive doses of money, people, rules, regulations, and all the other "inputs" government bureaucracies use to measure their importance and flex their muscles.

If we go with a brand new bureaucracy, we all know what is going to happen. The government unions see a lot of new dues paying members. Ambitious bureaucrats see vast empires to be built, volumes and volumes of regulations to be written and interpreted; and of course lawyers see many years of litigation, test cases and judicial activism ahead. This will all cost years of effort and tens of billions of dollars at least. Inspecting airline passengers is a piece of cake compared to vetting illegal aliens, and that effort has been full of waste, inefficiency and occasional frightening incompetence.

2. Poor and unskilled immigrants are expensive for the rest of society.

America may not have quite as generous a welfare state as Scandinavia and a few other European countries, but poor people, including unskilled immigrants, are as a group large net consumers of government and charitable services. Robert Rector's Heritage Foundation study put the net cost for just ten million illegal immigrants at $2.6 trillion, and more if the number is 12 million or higher.  Proposals for "ineligibility" for "welfare" ignore the deceptively-titled  "Refundable Earned Income Tax Credit" that sends a check from the government to low income workers (citizen or not), instead of them sending in a tax payment. Health care expenditures, schooling, food stamps, and a host of other government services are used by low income workers but don't qualify as welfare. Compared to the incremental sales, property and Social Security taxes received, the costs of these services must be much higher.

3. A large supply of unskilled immigrant labor benefits some groups and hurts others.

Some big companies (packing houses and hotels, most visibly) benefit from lower wages. But hundreds of thousands of small businesses depend on this labor pool for their survival. Without cheap immigrant labor there would be far fewer restaurants and other service businesses. It is no exaggeration to say that the affluent urbanites among us, a mostly liberal group, have their lifestyles underwritten by taxpayers and the rest of society. Many second income spouses would have a hard time coping without nannies, take-out food, gardeners, restaurants, and other personal services available so cheaply. Before the first immigration "reform", middle class people rarely ate out, and didn't have housekeepers, gardeners or nannies.

The biggest losers are other potential employees who compete at the low skill and low experience end of the labor market. Teenagers almost never mow lawns any more, a summer source of pocket money that was a staple for males of my generation, and which was my very first experience with paid labor, along with shoveling snow in the Minnesota winters.

The jobs that remain for teenagers require somewhat more education and skills than gardening and other manual labor, especially language skills. This leaves out some of the more poorly educated and or inexperienced minority males in particular. The first rung of the employment ladder is hard for them to find a foothold on. Once employed, their wages are driven down by the inflated supply of willing labor from poor countries, whose wage expectations are much lower than their own.

4. There is nothing wrong in insisting that immigrants serve American interests, not vice versa.

Democrats and some Republicans mouth platitudes about the sacredness of family reunification, ignoring the basic point that families can remain unified by staying at home or returning there, if unification is so important to them. Americans have no obligation to bear a burden so that the families of those who violated our laws can live together here.

Some immigrants make an immediate contribution to economic and social welfare. But there is no reason why family reunification should be used as an excuse to import even more people who will place a net burden on our taxes and charity.

Our next door neighbor Canada has successfully used a point system to select a substantial minority of its immigrants, along with those admitted for family reunification and as refugees. Where are all the media stories on the Canadian success in creating jobs and wealth by favoring those who bring money and skills? Just go to Toronto and Vancouver, two towns with great restaurants and hotels, to see all the companies started by immigrants who in effect bought their way in with investments. It is most strange that star reporters haven't been flocking there to research this aspect of the Canadian approach.

Any immigration program that gave priority to those who make an immediate net contribution to our economy, taxes and welfare would face far less opposition.


5. Citizenship is precious, and carries with it serious obligations.

There is absolutely no reason at all to grant a pathway to citizenship to those who failed to follow the law entering the United States. Humanitarian and economic considerations may weigh in favor of some form of residency or work permit for this group, but it is an intolerable denigration of the dignity of citizenship to pass it out as lagniappe for just showing up without papers. Those who violate the law have no legitimate claim to the reward of citizenship unless they bring some great benefit to the commonweal, such as military service.

Those who bemoan the prospect of a "second class" group of citizenship-ineligible residents fail to reckon with the reality that it was bad behavior which created the class and made it inferior.

6. Border security is well within our grasp, and is a precondition for the success of any other immigration changes.

Vasko Kohlmayer demonstrated two days ago that even the most absurdly inflated estimates for the cost of building a border fence are well within our means, in this American Thinker article.  Loyal reader Tom Caneris suggested that an intriguing comparison can be made with the scale of the federal project to construct tall noise barrier walls along our freeways.

Take a look at these freeway noise barriers and see that there is more than a passing resemblance to various wall designs for the border barrier.  Of course a border fence would have to be more robust, and it would not have the advantage of a nice highway to bring workers and material to the worksite. But it is not be that many orders of magnitude bigger a project than the highway noise barrier system.

Has the building of freeway noise barriers involved any national sacrifice? Have you ever fretted about how much money it has cost? Through the end of 2004, forty-five State DOTs and the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico have constructed over 2,205 linear miles of barriers  at a cost of over $2.7 billion ($3.4 billion in 2004 dollars), more than the length of the US-Mexico Border (1,951 miles).

7. Successful reform will come a step at a time, not all at once in a comprehensive package.

The worst argument in favor of a "comprehensive reform" effort is still and always will be that opponents are racists. But the second worst argument is that a piecemeal approach is wrong. Thanks to Senator Kennedy's earlier handiwork, we know how easy it is for the kind-hearted gesture of amnesty to create an even bigger crisis down the road. The public is rightly skeptical of grand promises.

Until our political class is collectively willing to face these basic common sense truths, any attempt at a comprehensive solution is far more likely to make matters worse.

Instead we should start with a priority national project to build a wall. An expression of national will like that alone would send a signal of seriousness that has so far been lacking. Once that barrier is working we can look at the realistic probable outcomes of other changes.  

Thomas Lifson is editor and publisher of American Thinker.