Politics & Policy

Three Questions on Immigration

‘Comprehensive immigration reform,” a deal on which is reportedly imminent, has a lot of moving parts — too many, in truth, as with most “comprehensive” legislation. Among the costs of comprehensivism is that debate over such bills often gets bogged down in the many details. Americans seeking to evaluate any deal should ask three questions about it to cut through the noise.

First: Will it encourage future illegal immigration? This has always been the greatest risk of proposals to provide legal status for current illegal immigrants: that it will be seen as a reason for others to come here illegally on the theory that eventually they and their children will be made legal too — and with the understanding that certainly no one will be deported. Answering this question requires knowing the answers to sub-questions too: Will the deal grant legal status before it increases enforcement? Does it enable activist groups to keep enforcement tied up in court for years while legalization proceeds? Will the process of legalizing illegal immigrants stretch the immigration bureaucracy too thin to keep up enforcement? Will enforcement be robust at the workplace as well as the border? (Roughly half of illegal immigrants come here legally and overstay their visas, and border enforcement won’t have any effect on them.) Do we have reason to think that “guest workers” who stay past their terms will be deported? Does the deal say anything about how to handle guest workers who have children while here? Our skepticism about all of these issues inclines us toward an enforcement-first strategy for immigration reform, but we will be awaiting the deal-makers’ answers to these questions.

Second: Will it increase the problems associated with illegal immigration? It may be true, as advocates of letting more relatively unskilled immigrants come here say, that these immigrants will not cause any more strain on public budgets than do native-born Americans in the same economic circumstances. Increasing the number of low-income people here, though, is bound to increase public spending, and not just on “welfare” narrowly defined. Does the deal include strong safeguards to prevent this?

Third: Will it promote assimilation? The United States is not just a market; it is a nation. Would this legislation make it more or less likely that the people who live in the United States think of themselves as a part of the same people, participating in the same culture and political process? Or would it encourage ethnic balkanization? Assimilation is likely to go easier when immigrant inflows are small and diverse: Does the legislation move us in this direction? Or does it abandon the civic ideal of assimilation by promoting reliance on a class of imported workers without the rights and responsibilities of Americans?

We are not dead-set against providing legal status to some large group of illegal immigrants under circumstances where doing so serves the national interest. Whether or not this deal does so depends on whether it yields satisfactory answers to these questions.