Politics & Policy

A Five-Cent Perspective

Getting immigration right.

As the Senate is mulling the details of a compromise immigration bill hammered together by the odd couple of Sens. Edward Kennedy and Jon Kyl, and as members of Congress hear from their constituents over the Memorial Day recess, it may be worthwhile to put the issue in historical context.

For most of our history, the United States had no restrictions on immigration at all. I am told that my Canadian-born grandfather was a “nickel immigrant”: He took the five-cent ferry from Windsor, Ontario, north to Detroit roundabout 1896. This situation resulted from America’s strong demand for labor, coupled with its weakness at managing its borders. The government could screen and register immigrants arriving at large ports but couldn’t patrol thousands of miles of border.

World War I enlarged and strengthened the federal government, and Congress voted for severe restrictions on immigration in 1921 and 1924. The labor market (and health inspectors) would no longer determine who came here; quotas were imposed on immigration from specific countries to reflect the ethnic composition of the nation in 1890. The apparatus of state was strong enough to enforce these restrictions, and, in any case, there was no market demand for immigrants during the depression of the 1930s and no way for them to come during World War II.

By the time immigration became an issue again, the political impetus for the immigration act of 1965 — floor-managed by Edward Kennedy — came from those who expected an influx from Italy, Greece, and, if possible, the “captive nations” of Eastern Europe. Few seem to have expected a surge from Latin America or East Asia, although country quotas were applied to immigration from Latin America for the first time.

Why, then, have we had so many Latin immigrants, many of them illegal? Because the apparatus of state has proved weaker than market forces: The old Immigration and Naturalization Service (now U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services) and the understaffed Border Patrol have been among our least competent federal bureaucracies. And because the family-unification provisions of the 1965 act allowed legal immigrants to bring in not just young children but also other relatives (“chain migration”), and because the Fourteenth Amendment makes anyone born in the United States a citizen.

The Kennedy-Kyl bill is built on the assumption that the federal government can effectively channel the flow of immigration. It has country quotas and would admit fewer relatives and more high-skilled workers. It would set a limit on the number of guest workers and a time limit on their stay — two years in, one year out. It allows for Z visas that would let current illegals remain if they pay certain fines (but not, astonishingly, back taxes), but provides that heads of household must return to their country of origin to be eligible for a green card and get on the path to citizenship.

Amnesty? The thing that is arousing so much fiery opposition to this bill — embittered cries of “amnesty” — is that we have tried something like this before and it didn’t work. The immigration act of 1986, signed by Ronald Reagan, purported to strengthen the border and to sanction employers of illegal immigrants; in return it gave an amnesty to illegals already here. The amnesty worked, and the Clinton administration scurried to naturalize tens of thousands of immigrants in time for the 1996 election. But border security has not worked. And it turned out to be easy for illegals to buy forged identification papers and unfeasible to prosecute employers who accepted them in apparent good faith.

The advocates of this new bill must convince voters that their plan will work better. They have a decent case to make, such as their call for an identification card with biometric information. Technology has made this more feasible than it was 20 years ago, and the phobia against a national identification card has been weaker since 9/11. Advocates must now convince the critics that such a card would make sanctions against employers enforceable. They must also show that border security will improve: that the 700-mile fence mandated by Congress last fall will actually be built; that unmanned aerial vehicles will reduce illegal crossings; that the larger Border Patrol will be effective; and that the apparatus of state will prove strong enough to prevail against market forces.

Pollster Scott Rasmussen reports that voters aren’t dead set against legalizing current illegals. But they must be convinced first that this time, border security is for real.

© 2007 U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT

DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.

Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. © 2018 Creators.com

Most Popular

The Secret Life of Joe Biden

In a classic episode of Seinfeld, Jerry is accused by his new girlfriend, a police officer, of being a fan of the tacky 1990s soap opera Melrose Place. When Jerry lies and denies it, she suggests putting him on a polygraph to find the truth. In an effort to beat the machine, Jerry seeks the advice of his ... Read More

The Secret Life of Joe Biden

In a classic episode of Seinfeld, Jerry is accused by his new girlfriend, a police officer, of being a fan of the tacky 1990s soap opera Melrose Place. When Jerry lies and denies it, she suggests putting him on a polygraph to find the truth. In an effort to beat the machine, Jerry seeks the advice of his ... Read More
National Security & Defense

Jared Kushner Was Right

Over the past several years, a new certainty was added to death and taxes: Jared Kushner would fail in his role as the administration’s Middle East point man. It caused considerable merriment among President Donald Trump’s critics (and even some of his well-wishers) when he put his son-in-law in charge of ... Read More
National Security & Defense

Jared Kushner Was Right

Over the past several years, a new certainty was added to death and taxes: Jared Kushner would fail in his role as the administration’s Middle East point man. It caused considerable merriment among President Donald Trump’s critics (and even some of his well-wishers) when he put his son-in-law in charge of ... Read More

The Consequences of Biden

If you have decided that another four years of Donald Trump would be intolerable, and the prospect of four more years of the dysfunctional Trump circus in the White House fills you with dread, fine. But approach the prospects of a Joe Biden presidency with clear eyes and no illusions. Electing Biden would move ... Read More

The Consequences of Biden

If you have decided that another four years of Donald Trump would be intolerable, and the prospect of four more years of the dysfunctional Trump circus in the White House fills you with dread, fine. But approach the prospects of a Joe Biden presidency with clear eyes and no illusions. Electing Biden would move ... Read More
U.S.

Zoomers and the Constitution

A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center compared generational views on key social and political issues, focusing on the similarities between Millennials and Generation Z. The topics probed include race relations, diversity, climate change, capitalism, socialism, and the role of government. This last item, ... Read More
U.S.

Zoomers and the Constitution

A 2019 study by the Pew Research Center compared generational views on key social and political issues, focusing on the similarities between Millennials and Generation Z. The topics probed include race relations, diversity, climate change, capitalism, socialism, and the role of government. This last item, ... Read More
Elections

Is the Biden Campaign Struggling?

On the menu today: a long, long list of Democrats warning that the Biden campaign may not be as strong as it looks in key states and among key demographics; another former White House staffer comes out and denounces the president, offering a hard lesson about how personnel is policy; and a long look at the ... Read More
Elections

Is the Biden Campaign Struggling?

On the menu today: a long, long list of Democrats warning that the Biden campaign may not be as strong as it looks in key states and among key demographics; another former White House staffer comes out and denounces the president, offering a hard lesson about how personnel is policy; and a long look at the ... Read More
Media

How American Journalism Died

In 2017, the liberal Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University found that 93 percent of CNN’s coverage of the Trump administration was negative. The center found similarly negative Trump coverage at other major news outlets. The election year 2020 has only accelerated ... Read More
Media

How American Journalism Died

In 2017, the liberal Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University found that 93 percent of CNN’s coverage of the Trump administration was negative. The center found similarly negative Trump coverage at other major news outlets. The election year 2020 has only accelerated ... Read More