Politics & Policy

Fixing Immigration, Trump or No Trump

At the U.S.-Mexican border near Calexico, Calif., 2009 (Reuters photo: Lucy Nicholson)
A long-term solution does not require amnesty.

U.S. immigration law is a mess, and U.S. immigration-law enforcement is a worse mess.

It is a fixable mess, if we wanted to fix it — but we don’t.

It is not a mess that probably is fixable by Donald Trump. Trump is a fantasist nominated and supported by fantasists, and chances are excellent that those fantasies will come to an abrupt end on November 8.

However the election turns out, we will be left with a mess.

Much of that mess is a result of destructive political incentives and extraordinarily shallow political thinking. For example, we often are told that we “cannot” deport 11 million or so illegals in a matter of a few years, or at least that we cannot do that without relying on invasive, inhumane methods and policies. That’s probably true, but no serious person — I am afraid this excludes all of the major presidential candidates — has that as Plan A. Can we deport — or force the self-deportation of, to use the wrongly maligned term — most of the very large share of the illegal immigrants who are here mainly for economic purposes? Absolutely.

Should we?


As I have argued for some time, we could do a great deal to reduce and reverse illegal immigration by taking five fairly straightforward steps that do not even require building a wall (though there are sections of the border that certainly should be walled). Those steps are: 1) Passing a law that forbids anyone who is or who has been an illegal immigrant from ever becoming a U.S. citizen, even if his current status is legal; 2) Passing a similar law that forbids anyone who is or has been an illegal immigrant from applying for a work permit, even if his current status is legal; 3) Carrying out robust workplace enforcement through mandatory E-Verify and the deployment of asset forfeiture against businesses convicted of employing illegal-alien labor; 4) Putting a citizen or non-citizen stamp on drivers’ licenses and requiring non-citizens to document their legal status when engaging in ordinary financial transactions such as cashing a check or booking domestic travel; 5) Passing a law that forbids anyone who is or has been an illegal immigrant from ever legally entering the United States.

RELATED: The Only Immigration Solution

This puts additional burdens on non-citizens residing in the United States, which is unfortunate for them but which is nonetheless the most desirable place to put such burdens, while adding trivially to the regulatory burden of already heavily regulated institutions such as financial firms and airlines. It also adds trivially to the regulatory burdens endured by employers vis-à-vis new hires. That isn’t ideal, but neither is a lawless system of immigration or a Brownsville–to–Chula Vista wall that probably cannot or should not actually be built and that would be at best only half effective in any case.

The much smaller share of illegal immigrants who are here for non-economic purposes (or those whose economic purpose is criminal) will have to be treated more or less the way they are now, though they would have a smaller and much more restricted illegal-immigrant population to hide among.

This is not a two-year project or a five-year project; it probably is more like a 20-year project, though one would expect to see radical improvements in a much shorter period of time, particularly if some future Justice Department could be inspired to get off its collective bureaucratic ass and put a few meatpacking executives and construction-firm operators in prison for violating U.S. immigration and labor laws.

#share#Why do we want to do this?

The main reason, and the most obvious one, is that while we are indeed a nation of immigrants — like every other nation on the face of the earth — this polity, like any other polity, has the right to decide who joins it and on what terms. Those laws could be liberal or they could be very restrictive, but the worst situation is the one we have, meaning very strict laws in theory but anarchy in practice.

It will be politically and practically impossible to go about amending our immigration laws in an intelligent way while we have lawless conditions.

But it will be politically and practically impossible to go about amending our immigration laws in an intelligent way while we have lawless conditions, which invite both self-interested partisan grandstanding on both sides of the aisle and irresponsible demagoguery — if the European example tells us anything, it is that Donald Trump will not be the last of his kind. Reorganizing U.S. immigration law in a way that emphasizes the economic interests and cultural continuity of the United States rather than maintaining a chain-immigration system that privileges the (sometimes theoretical) reunification of extended immigrant families over genuinely national concerns is a project that can only be coolly and rationally undertaken once the volatile problem of illegal immigration is under control.

“Under control” here should not be taken, as it so often is, as the precondition for amnesty and the “path to citizenship.” Even if, after doing all of the above, we were to decide at some date 20 years hence that the presumably smaller number of remaining illegal immigrants should be granted legal residency — and there is no obvious reason to do that — there is no pressing need to extend citizenship to illegal immigrants, now or ever. People reside, sometimes permanently, in foreign countries for economic and other reasons all the time, and the decision to do so is fundamentally different from the decision to become a citizen of that country. The United States is a nation that is based on neither ethnicity nor any other Old World blood-and-soil criterion, but on citizenship. Consequently, we should take citizenship seriously, which means that it should be treated as an end in and of itself rather than as a means to some other end, such as a good job or domestic convenience.

RELATED: P.C. Talking Points about Immigration Don’t Square with the Facts

None of this should be especially controversial. Lawfulness is preferable to lawlessness, and though we certainly have and should have a humane concern for the world’s unhappy people, the responsibility of the government of these United States is to the citizens of these United States, not to the citizens of other countries, as much as we might like to help them.

#related#And our humane considerations should be tempered by the knowledge that the economic consequences of continuing high levels of low-skilled immigration are borne most heavily not by native-born workers (who in fact benefit, on net, from lower prices) but by prior low-skilled immigrants, who tend to be concentrated in the same industries as the new ones and who suffer from the same economic limitations, such as limited English proficiency or lack of formal education. Assimilation is not only a cultural concern but an economic one, too, and it is much more difficult to bring low-skilled immigrants into the economic mainstream with high levels of similar immigration.  

Intelligent immigration reform will be complex and difficult. I would not bet on Donald Trump’s being the man for that job. But it is a job that someone is going to have to do.

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