Members of the chattering classes keep hoping the immigration issue will just go away. I was once interviewed on a radio show along with an activist on the other side who said Mexico’s falling birthrate would mean that pretty soon we’d be scratching our heads wondering what all the fuss over immigration policy was about. That was nearly 25 years ago. In 2006, Mexican president Vicente Fox said that in ten years we’d be begging for Mexican workers, but they wouldn’t come, because they’d all be employed at home. And just recently, the New York Times ran a front-page story on the coming end of the Mexican immigration flow, a meme eagerly picked up by Michael Barone, Linda Chavez, and other columnists.
There’s a germ of truth here: The flow of illegals across the Mexican border has indeed slowed during the recession. But the tapering off of mass immigration that is said to be just over the horizon always will be. There are nearly 40 million immigrants in the United States — about one in eight residents — and, even during the worst part of the recession, more than 1 million people moved here annually from abroad.
Until the fabled end of immigration actually comes, Republican presidential candidates will need to address the issue. For all their proper focus on government spending and debt, control of our borders remains a central concern of Republican primary voters, and for a large share of independents and Reagan Democrats. What’s more, the usual platitudes are no longer convincing them; having mobilized to stop the Bush-McCain amnesty, and eyeing with suspicion the current administration’s hijinks, voters are more educated than ever. Merely posturing about ever-higher fences, without engaging the issue as a whole, is no longer sufficient for a candidate to be taken seriously by voters concerned about immigration.
Before the last cycle of presidential primaries, I laid out a ten-point immigration plan with achievable goals for a nominee to embrace. This time, I want to do something a little different: lay out three packages of policies — a basic plan, an upgraded plan, and a premium plan — regarding immigration enforcement and numbers, some that a president could implement by himself, others requiring legislation.
The basic package consists of items that any serious Republican aspirant should support. With regard to illegal immigration, there are two main goals: fencing and mandating the use by all employers of E-Verify. With regard to legal immigration, also two goals: ending the visa lottery and eliminating brother-sister chain migration.
Five years ago, Congress mandated the construction of some 700 miles of fencing, and the administration claims that this mandate has been fulfilled. In fact, most of the result is not the two layers of reinforced fencing required by the law; only about 1 percent of the border with Mexico has this. Of the nearly 700 other fenced miles, close to half has only Normandy barriers, which are designed to stop trucks from simply driving over the border but otherwise are so unimposing that your grandmother could hop over one. (Heck, even I can hop over them, and have.) The other half is actual fencing — pedestrian fencing, in Homeland Security lingo — but almost all single-layer, and varying in design from one contractor to the next. Double fencing with roads allowing agents to patrol in between, supplemented by remote sensors and cameras to alert agents to breaches, and forward operating bases right along the border to cut response times — that the deployment of all this is needed should almost go without saying.
But even this stripped-down basic package has to include more than just hardening the border. Limiting the demand for illegals by weakening the attraction of employment is at least as important as limiting the supply by fencing. The policy objective here is to ensure that all new hires are screened through E-Verify, something House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith is working to make mandatory. Smith’s bill also simplifies the use of E-Verify, ends penalties for innocent paperwork errors, and codifies the process through which employers are informed about existing employees whose names and Social Security numbers don’t match. There has been controversy among immigration hawks about the bill’s preemption of certain state and local activity in this area, but since the states with the most illegals (California, New York, Illinois, even Texas) are unlikely to pass E-Verify mandates on their own, a federal measure is the only way to get it done.
It’s not enough for a candidate to say he’s against illegal immigration but in favor of legal immigration. The inevitable question then is: How much legal immigration, and by whom?
The most indefensible feature of our legal immigration system is the diversity visa lottery. It was invented in 1986 as a way to grant amnesty to Irish illegal aliens and has since morphed into a program that provides green cards at random to foreigners — most from the Middle East, Africa, and the former Soviet bloc — without any real standards concerning education or job skills. Each year’s 50,000 winners have friends and family back home, many of whom will then also want to immigrate. And the 15 million people who applied last year developed expectations of moving to the United States that could never be met, thus encouraging illegal immigration.
Another legal-immigration no-brainer concerns the 60,000 adult siblings of U.S. citizens who are allowed to migrate to the United States each year simply because of their brothers or sisters. Adult-sibling immigration means an ever-larger share of the globe’s population has a claim to enter the United States, as the siblings of earlier immigrants enter with their spouses, who have their own siblings, whose spouses in turn have their own siblings, and so on. No other country allows this, and there’s simply no “family reunification” rationale for admitting from abroad whole new families of adults.
These two changes alone — ending the visa lottery and chain migration — would reduce future legal immigration from about 1.1 million to about 1 million a year.
An upgraded package would include everything in the basic package, plus the following legal- and illegal-immigration reforms.
The first is to double deportations. Much of the reduction in the illegal population will come voluntarily, as illegal aliens come to understand they will not be able to find work or live a normal life here. But that is no reason to let up on deportations. Unfortunately, the Obama administration is doing just that. It has touted the “removal” of nearly 400,000 aliens each year (a statistic that also includes the exclusion of people trying to enter the country), but in fact the steady increase in deportations we saw since the mid-1990s has come to halt. Doubling the number of aliens deported, both violent criminals and ordinary illegal aliens, is a practical goal. Achieving it would require expanded use of “expedited removal,” an authority granted by Congress to remove illegal aliens without going through the court system, along with more detention beds to hold illegals so they don’t run off while in proceedings, expanded partnering with local law enforcement through the Secure Communities and 287(g) programs, and arresting illegal aliens in worksite raids, something the Obama White House has essentially prohibited.
Second, we should fully implement the US-VISIT program, which is supposed to check in and check out foreign visitors, verifying their identities with biometric information, allowing us better to know who’s entered, who’s departed, and who’s remained here as an illegal alien. Congress has repeatedly demanded the completion of this system, which was first mandated in 1996, and there’s been progress, but the administration has announced that it has no intention of finishing the job. At present, the information is collected from outbound air travelers voluntarily at airport kiosks — hardly a secure approach. The vast majority of foreign visitors (most of them Canadians and Mexicans crossing overland on ostensibly short visits) are not being checked in or out at all.
The third component would be to go beyond the basic package in ending chain migration. For obvious reasons, we grant special immigration privileges to the foreign-born spouses and minor children of U.S. citizens: Husbands, wives, and minor children should be together. But there is no equally obvious reason to extend similar privileges to adult children or parents, or to the newly married spouses of non-citizen green-card holders. To do so obscures the relationship between citizenship and immigration rights. Limiting family immigration to the husbands, wives, and dependent children of American citizens would still allow in a pretty large number — more than 350,000 of last year’s 1.1 million new legal immigrants would still have qualified — but it would prevent endless chains of relatives from taking over the immigration flow.
The upgraded package would reduce future legal admissions to about 700,000 per year.
The premium package includes everything from the first two, ends birthright citizenship, and reduces the number of immigrants entering the country on skilled-worker or refugee/asylum grounds.
Each year, some 300,000 children are born to illegal-alien mothers, acquiring U.S. citizenship at birth. In addition, thousands more come here on temporary visas to give birth, then depart once they receive their children’s U.S. birth certificates and passports. It’s a matter of debate whether the 14th Amendment to the Constitution actually grants citizenship for children born to illegals or tourists, and thus whether changing our citizenship rules must be done through legislation or constitutional amendment. But it should be done in either case.
The first two packages have already addressed the biggest problems with the legal immigration flow — its slide into nepotism through chain migration. This premium version focuses on two other immigrant categories: skills-based immigrants and those seeking refugee/asylum admissions. Each of these broad groups comprises roughly 150,000 immigrants per year and should be radically reduced — my preference would be to cut them by two-thirds, to 50,000. The wailing and gnashing of teeth from business lobbyists about skilled foreigners turned away from the golden door is baloney; while the skills category does enable the immigration of some truly exceptional workers, research shows that it admits large numbers of average workers who appeal to employers mainly as cheap labor. Something similar is true of the refugee/asylum category — some who qualify for it truly have no other option, but most use it simply as an alternative means to move here for work or to join relatives. Sharpening the focus of both these categories will not undermine their purposes, but will result in lower numbers of immigrants.
The premium package would lead to a legal immigration flow of about half a million per year, much less than today’s level but still higher than the historical average over the past two centuries.
None of these packages encompasses every element of immigration reform. Unaddressed concerns include temporary workers, dual citizenship, and the State Department’s continued role in issuing visas. But these three packages will, I hope, help both candidates and voters think through some of the most important aspects of this vital issue.
— Mr. Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. This article originally appeared in the August 15, 2011, issue of National Review.