Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Common Sense on Immigration

[Cross-posted on AmbivaBlog]

Read both this post on A Moderate's Musings and David Brooks's Sunday Op-Ed column. You'll get a quick, clear overview of the two immigration-reform bills now working their way through the Senate. Moderate Man prefers the McCain-Kennedy bill to the tougher, but in his view less realistic, Cornyn-Kyl bill; Brooks thinks the two can and should be combined. But both writers stake out a sensible centrist position between two bad ideas: a sweeping amnesty (which would give easy cover to terrorist sleeper cells) and a sweeping crackdown (which would only drive illegals deeper underground). Both face up to three undeniable realities:

• American employers want large supplies of hard-working, low-wage foreign labor.
• Such workers want to come here because our "low wage" converts into a bonanza back home that enables them to become home- and landowners, and/or because they harbor their own American dream. They want to come here so badly they will die trying.
• In an age of terror, we must have a better way of knowing who comes across our borders and tracking what they do once they're in.

Moderate Man:
Under the Cornyn-Kyl bill . . . [c]urrent illegal aliens would have to leave the U.S. within five years, but could then apply for the temporary-worker plan from their home countries. The problem with this is the deportation process. The Cornyn-Kyl bill essentially calls for all illegals to pack up whatever livelihood they have established here and turned themselves in to be sent back. Do these senators really expect these people to go along with this . . . ? And when (not if) they don't comply, how are immigration agents going to find them . . . ? Because of its high unenforceability, this bill will do nothing to help us keep better track of who is coming into the country.

The McCain-Kennedy bill, on the other hand, creates a new worker visa for unskilled laborers and establishes a formula for determining the annual number to be issued. The application process would require security clearances, medical checks, and a fee. A work visa could be renewed after three years, and, after four years, a worker could apply for a green card leading to citizenship. This provision allows immigrants a safe, legal method to work in this country. . . . It will thus ease the now overwhelming amount of illegal traffic border patrols . . . have to deal with, and allows them to treat those who still try to enter illegally with greater suspicion. . . .

Under McCain-Kennedy, [current] illegals will be able to gain citizenship, but only after a lengthy process and the payment of fines [and back taxes].
Tough enforcement laws make us feel good but they don't do the job. Since 1986, we've tripled the number of Border Patrol agents and increased the enforcement budget 10 times over, but we haven't made a dent in the number of illegals who make it here. We've got agents chasing busboys while who knows what kind of terrorists are trying to sneak into this country.

The problem is that we make it nearly impossible for the immigrants to come here legally. We issue about 5,000 visas for unskilled year-round labor annually, but the economy requires hundreds of thousands of new workers to clean hotel rooms and process food. We need these workers but we force them underground with our self-delusional immigration policies. . . .

The only way to re-establish order is to open up legal, controllable channels through which labor can flow in an aboveground, orderly way. We can't build a wall to stop this flood; we need sluice gates to regulate the flow. . . .

Practical people understand the only way to establish law and order is to create a temporary-worker program and step up enforcement to make sure people use it.

[The two bills i]n the Senate . . . if combined would get us a long way toward a solution. The McCain-Kennedy bill has an effective temporary worker program. The Kyl-Cornyn bill has tough border security provisions. . . . [T]he sponsors of both may come to realize the two bills are not rivals. They complement each other.

The issue of immigration from Mexico, in particular, is personal for me. I have a friend in North Carolina who bitterly resents the transformation of her traditional world by floods of non-English-speaking strangers whom the system, in her view, accomodates and coddles instead of demanding they adapt. And I have a childhood friend who now lives in Oregon, who came across the Rio Grande one night on his father's back, much as my mother's father came across the Prut between Russia and Romania on his uncle's back, half a century apart, both on their long way to Chicago. "Chato," as he was called at fifteen, sends me the short stories he's writing, funny and piercing, about the pain of that adaptation. When I found him again over the Internet after about 40 years, one of the first things he said to me was, "We were wetbacks, you know."

My North Carolina friend's grievances are legitimate, and when I listen sympathetically to them, they hurt the part of me that knows Chato, because I feel how they would pierce him.

UPDATE: Cutler's Yankee Station has gathered some highly pertinent related information. What percentage of adult Mexicans want to immigrate to the U.S.? What percentage of U.S. Latinos think illegal immigrants should get driver's licenses? Go see. (H/T: Dean's World.)


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