The Illusion of Toughness

by Reihan Salam

Having praised Peter Skerry’s immigration reform proposal on more than one occasion, I should make note of his excellent short article in the last issue (not the latest) of the Weekly Standard. Skerry argues that many recent immigration enforcement proposals would be so difficult to implement in practice as to be fanciful:

One looming challenge here is the English-language requirement. Existing ESL programs are already oversubscribed and woefully underfunded. Even if additional resources were appropriated for such efforts—a dubious proposition in the current context—it is not clear how well English is currently being taught to poorly educated immigrants preoccupied with working to support their families. This reflects a deeper neglect of assimilation, which Americans routinely call for but invariably do little to promote. None of this is likely to change under pressure to process millions of immigrants suddenly eligible for legalization. Indeed, the likely scenario is increased demand, inadequate resources, oversubscribed classes, and the inevitable—and in the event, understandable—lax enforcement of standards so as not to obstruct the path to citizenship. After all, who’s going to want to stand in the way of a middle-aged cleaning lady with three kids becoming a citizen just because she doesn’t speak much English?

As for collecting back taxes from illegals, prospects are even dimmer. To begin, illegals already pay sales and property taxes. Many also pay Social Security and other payroll taxes. But because they use fraudulent documents, those funds go to accounts under someone else’s name. Some pay income taxes using Individual Taxpayer Identification Numbers (ITINs), devised by the IRS as an alternative to Social Security numbers for foreign nationals, including the undocumented.

The overarching question is whether the tax proceeds to be collected from low-income, unskilled workers would exceed the costs of securing those taxes. It would be a nightmare, for example, to reconstruct work histories in the informal sector where the undocumented typically labor. Even Steven Camarota, research director of the restrictionist-oriented Center for Immigration Studies, concludes that “this is not a provision to generate income, it is a provision to create the illusion of toughness the public likes.”

Skerry concludes by offering a solution that is both tough and that accounts for the limited capacity of the American administrative state: permanent non-citizen resident status for unauthorized immigrants who settled in the U.S. as adults. It’s not a perfect solution, but it has the virtue of relative simplicity.