Don’t Abandon Comprehensive Immigration Reform

Political posturing doesn't answer the need for comprehensive immigration reform.

After months of delay, posturing, and tax-payer funded grandstanding on immigration reform (spearheaded by restrictionists in the House of Representatives), Congress stands on the edge of a precipice. At the bottom of the abyss into which Congress appears headed for lies the remnants of the failed immigration policies that have brought us to this juncture—policies that restrictionists appear all too eager to repeat.

Border enforcement-only approaches to tackling our country’s immigration challenge are one-dimensional panaceas that are tried but not true. In fact, the drive for comprehensive immigration reform was borne of the failure of such policies and remains the only viable alternative if Congress is serious about actually addressing the immigration challenges facing our country today.

As members of Congress consider the short-term political benefit of restrictionist proposals embodied in the recently announced “Border Security Now” Agenda, the Center for American Progress urges them to look behind the alarmist and nativist rhetoric and examine the basic facts regarding immigration-related challenges and opportunities faced by our country today. We also believe it is imperative that Congress examine the track record of border enforcement-only approaches to addressing these challenges—and remember how comprehensive immigration reform would protect our security, allow our economy to grow, protect the wages of U.S. workers, honor our value of rewarding hard work, restore the rule of law, and respect America’s traditional embrace of immigrants.

Beyond the Rhetoric

Throughout the current debate, and especially since the restrictionist-inspired round of House “field hearings” and the publication and promotion of Pat Buchanan’s State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America, the immigration debate has been full of distortions and misinformation. Claims have ranged from Buchanan’s paranoid vision of “reconquest” to the Heritage Foundation’s unfounded claim that comprehensive reform would lead as many as 190 million new immigrants to enter the country in the next 20 years to the tired old canard that immigrants, and particularly those from Latin America, do not wish to assimilate.

The basic facts regarding immigration today are:

Border Enforcement Alone is Costly and Ineffective

Unable or unwilling to reconcile profound divisions among conservatives regarding immigration, the conservative leadership in Congress appears to have given into the sentiment of “do something, anything, to look like we are dealing with this crisis.” Unfortunately, “the something” is to throw away good money by pursuing border enforcement in isolation, which has not and cannot work in such a manner.

In the rush to meet artificial deadlines created by perceived electoral imperatives, and after wasting months by posturing instead of attempting to craft a meaningful, bipartisan, bicameral compromise, restrictionists are attempting to hide the ball on the costs and effectiveness of enforcement by rushing legislation to the House floor without adequate consideration. To distract from these realities, restrictionists attempt to play the anti-terrorism card by claiming they are acting to make America safer.

Expert after expert, however, dismisses the mythical threat from which the restrictionists pretend to protect us by getting tough at the southern border. By regulating the flow we would be able to focus our resources and manpower on targeting those who want to harm us. Border enforcement is part of the solution, but not the solution.

  • Immigration enforcement is expensive. The enforcement provisions of Senate-passed comprehensive reform legislation, for example, account for $78 billion of the legislation’s $83 billion net cost over 10 years. [American Immigration Lawyers Association, “Fact Sheet: The Cost of Comprehensive Immigration Reform,” Congressional Budget Office, Cost Estimate for S. 2611, August 18, 2006]
  • Border enforcement alone has been tried and has failed. Despite tripling the size of the U.S. Border Patrol along the southern border between 1990 and 2005 and increasing its funding tenfold between 1986 and 2002, the undocumented population in the United States doubled in size, the death rate of border crossings tripled, and the per-apprehension cost increased from $300 in 1992 to $1700 in 2002. [Douglas Massey, “Backfire at the Border,” The Center for Trade Policy Studies, June, 2005]
  • Anti-terror experts agree that building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is a low priority. Asked by Foreign Policy magazine and the Center for American Progress how they would improve U.S. security at international borders, 70 percent of a broad a range of anti-terrorism experts said “improve port and cargo security.” Only 6 percent answered “build a fence between the United States and Mexico.” [Foreign Policy & Center for American Progress, “Terrorism Index,” June 14, 2006]
  • Enforcing our borders requires regulating the flow of those seeking to enter the country. Border enforcement alone cannot work because of the expanse of our borders and the sheer numbers that overwhelm enforcement efforts. The U.S. economy absorbs approximately 500,000 low-skilled undocumented workers per year, but our immigration system only allocates 5,000 visas for them. The rest either cross our borders illegally or overstay their visas. Regulating that flow would enhance enforcement efforts immeasurably by narrowing the scope of the problem. [National Immigration Forum, “Employment Based Immigration,” January 2005;
  • Mass deportation of the undocumented population, advocated by Buchanan and others, even assuming 20 percent would leave voluntarily if such a policy was enacted, would cost at least $206 billion over a five-year period. [Goyle & Jaeger, “Deporting the Undocumented: A Cost Assessment,” Center for American Progress, July 2005]
  • The increase in border enforcement has led to an increase in the number of immigrants dying. According to a recent GAO report, the number of undocumented immigrants dying while trying to cross the Mexican border to enter the United States has almost doubled since the late 1990s. Most died because increased border security in urban areas in California and Texas forced immigrants to take the dangerous route across the state’s desert. The number of deaths reached 472 last year, compared to 241 in 1999. There was a sharp increase in the number of women and children dying, probably because it is becoming harder for men to cross and bring their families later. [Reuters, “Immigrant deaths on the US-Mexican Border Double,” Sept 18, 2006]

Immigration & the Economy

Busy with their efforts to improve the position of our country’s wealthiest citizens and corporations, conservatives in Congress have done little to improve the economic condition of millions of working men and women in America. Instead, they have assumed the restrictionist mantle that attempts to cast blame for all of the economic pressures felt by Americans across the country on undocumented workers.

Although there is ample academic debate and controversy regarding the precise effects of the undocumented workforce on the economy, there are certain crucial facts that tend to get lost in the shuffle when the discussion shifts to an enforcement uber alles approach.

  • The performance of the native-worker job market is not tied to the amount of immigrant labor in the market. During the economic boom of the 1990s, the recession that followed, and the subsequent recovery there was no discernible relationship between the rate of growth, the absolute size of the pool of foreign-born workers, or job prospects for native-born workers. [Rakesh Kochhar, “Growth in the Foreign-Born Workforce and Employment of the Native Born,” Pew Hispanic Center]
  • A massive skills and education gulf exists between the undocumented workforce and that of the unemployed American citizens that some contend is being displaced. This gulf seriously undermines the restrictionist claims that undocumented immigrant workers are displacing U.S. workers and underscores the massive displacement that would accompany the mass, forced removal of the undocumented who have sown roots in the United States. [David A. Jaeger, PhD, “Replacing the Undocumented Work Force,” April 4, 2006]
  • Undocumented workers may contribute as much as $7 billion annually to the Social Security Trust Fund through payroll taxes paid on Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers and fraudulent Social Security numbers. [National Immigration Forum, “Facts on Immigration: Bolstering Social Security,” April 6, 2006; New York Times, “Illegal Immigrants are Bolstering Social Security with Billions,” page A1, April 5, 2005]
  • Undocumented workers contributed approximately 1 percent to total U.S. wages in 2004. [David A. Jaeger, “Replacing the Undocumented Workforce,” Center For American Progress, March 2006]
  • The 7.2 million undocumented immigrants currently employed in the U.S. economy are concentrated in a small number of sectors of the work force. They comprise 24 percent of all workers in farming occupations, 17 percent in cleaning, 14 percent in construction, and 12 percent in food preparation. [Passel, “The Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S.,” Pew Hispanic Center, March, 2006]

Although effective border enforcement is a necessary element of reform, the past has shown us that it is not sufficient solution to our broken immigration system solely. Even if the conservative leadership in Congress cannot grasp this reality, the American public has done so. In poll after poll, the American people have embraced more effective border enforcement as a necessary element of reform.

Unlike restrictionists in Congress, however, the American people do not stop there. They do not stick their heads in the sand to ignore the undocumented population already in the country. Instead, large percentages embrace providing a “tough but fair” path to earned citizenship for the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country today—an essential element of comprehensive reform. Similar percentages also support the kind of robust temporary guest worker program that will make border enforcement more effective, bolster our economy, and protect workers far more effectively than does the current unregulated and exploitative de facto guest worker program.

As proponents of such reform from across the political spectrum have come to understand, enforcement alone will not lead to the necessary, modern immigration system that protects our security, economy, and values. It would be tragic if Congress makes good on the restrictionist threat to allow short-term political calculus to trump the compelling need for comprehensive immigration reform.

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