Politics & Policy

Is Any Number Too High?

U.S.-Mexico border fence near Tijuana.

If there is an upside to the debate unfolding over the Gang of Eight’s immigration-reform bill, it is this: The simplistic version of the conversation — pro-immigration vs. anti-immigration — has been supplanted by a more relevant set of questions: How many new immigrants? Of what sort? On what timeline? Under what conditions? It is good that these questions are being asked — but the answers coming from Congress are anything but reassuring.

One need not accept the wrongheaded dystopian views of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus to believe that there is some number that is too high, and one need not hew to an exclusively economic view of the question to conclude that some immigrants will be more desirable for the purposes of a nation with a highly complex modern economy than others. This bill would create more than 30 million new legal immigrants in the next ten years, including the 11 million illegals already here; with the new arrivals added to current immigration trends, nearly one in five Americans would be foreign-born.

#ad#The Gang of Eight’s rhetoric — credible border security and law enforcement coupled with a reorientation of our immigration regime toward more rational protocols and a humane approach to the thorny issue of illegal immigrants already resident in the country — is promising. But the reality is something else.

Consider these developments in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where the bill is being marked up:

Senator Jeff Sessions (R., Ala.) offered an amendment that would have required the completion of 700 miles of double-layer fencing along the southern border before the bill’s liberalization program could kick in. The committee rejected that amendment.

Senator Ted Cruz (R., Texas) offered an amendment that would have substantially increased the personnel and equipment available for policing the southern border and would have implemented direct accountability procedures — including docking the pay of political appointees and imposing budget cuts — if well-defined border-security benchmarks were not met. The committee rejected the amendment.

Senator Mike Lee (R., Utah) offered an amendment that would have required Congress to conduct a simple up-or-down vote ratifying or rejecting the Department of Homeland Security’s certification that the border-security measures contained in the bill are in fact operational. This was an especially crucial measure: Members of Congress are directly politically accountable to their constituents, whereas members of the permanent bureaucracies and political appointees do not face election. The committee rejected the amendment.

Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) offered an amendment that would have imposed a six-month assessment period between the time DHS certifies that the border is secure and the beginning of the “path to citizenship” process. The committee rejected the amendment.

Perhaps most telling, Senator Sessions also introduced an amendment that would have limited the total flow of new legal immigrants to 30 million over the coming decade. The committee rejected that amendment by a vote of 17 to 1, suggesting that even the broadest and most general kinds of controls are on the outs. Is there a proportion of foreign-born citizens — workers, voters, political constituents — that is too large? If not one-fifth, what about one-third? What about half? Senator Sessions’s amendment may not have drawn the line in the right place, but the Senate is saying that no line can be drawn.

The vote on Sessions’s amendment shows the stark divide between the public and the political elites who are driving this legislation. On the few occasions anyone has bothered to poll the question recently, Americans have vastly preferred a reduction in immigration to an increase in it. Perhaps they are moved by the commonsense insight that a smaller inflow of immigrants will be easier to assimilate than a larger one. Senator Sessions’s colleagues show no sign of having considered the question.

In toto, these rejected amendments paint a picture of a legislative package that is designed to protect Congress from political accountability by transferring the responsibilities of elected officials onto unelected managers and bureaucrats. When Congress seeks to reduce its own influence, that is an indicator that our elected legislators believe it is politically prudent to do so. And if Congress has little faith that the standards and procedures this legislation establishes will pass muster with the American people, we must take that as an indication of the bill’s fundamental weakness.

#page#It is also telling that the debate over the use of a biometric exit-entry system to prevent visa overstays is being conducted as though it were primarily a question of cost. Congress already has passed a law mandating the creation of a visa-control system, and that law has been ignored. Visa overstays are the source of nearly half of our illegal immigrants, and they represent a serious national-security threat as well: Four of the 9/11 hijackers were in the United States as a result of our national unwillingness or inability to enforce visa rules. Yes, creating a biometric visa-control system would be expensive; refusing to create one imposes costs as well, one of which can be seen at memorials in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in a field in Pennsylvania. That the federal government cannot find the resources to perform basic law-enforcement and border-security tasks in a budget approaching $4 trillion is an indicator that the main hurdle to securing our border is not resources but will.

#ad#The actions of the Judiciary Committee do not indicate that the government finally has mustered the necessary will — precisely the opposite, in fact. As Senator Sessions put it: “None of the significant amendments have been accepted. It’s pretty clear that the Gang of Eight’s original statement that they would resist any significant changes to the bill is coming true.”

The approach is slapdash, and the stakes could hardly be higher. Creating more than 30 million new immigrants, including 11 million former illegals, and supplanting their numbers with another 20-odd million guest workers is from a sociological and demographic point of view quite radical: 30 million is roughly a tenth of the current population of the United States. How we handle immigration is of fundamental importance to questions ranging from national security to economic growth to the character of our nation itself. That we cannot get a couple of small-time performance benchmarks written into the bill suggests that this issue is not being treated with the intelligence and the prudence it deserves.

This series of legislative failures is perhaps the best piece of evidence for taking a different approach to the question: Rather than one swollen, era-defining legislative package, what is required here is several pieces of narrowly tailored legislation, each targeted toward a specific aspect of the immigration question. We can and should control the borders and enforce visa rules regardless of what we decide to do about the illegals already present within our borders. The guest-worker program deserves to be rejected on its own — it is a non-solution to a non-problem — rather than bundled together with national-security priorities.

As it stands, the Senate is preparing to send a defective piece of legislation to the House. However the politics shake out, our immigration system remains in dire need of reform, a project that requires leadership of a higher caliber than that shown so far by the Gang of Eight.

The Editors — The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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