The Agenda

Defending the Skerry and Bolick-Bush Proposals

Peter Skerry and Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick have recommended that Congress allow virtually all unauthorized immigrants to become lawful permanent residents, yet they have also recommended that only those unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minor children also be granted a path to citizenship. The idea is that while deporting large numbers of unauthorized immigrants from the U.S. strikes many Americans as inhumane, particularly since many unauthorized immigrants have resided in the U.S. for a long period of time and are part of mixed-status families, e.g., many have U.S.-born children, granting unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as adults a path to citizenship fails to hold them accountable for having violated U.S. immigration laws. 

The rejoinder to this idea from advocates of a path to citizenship for all unauthorized immigrants, including those who arrived in the U.S. as adults, is that creating a new class of lawful permanent residents who are not eligible for citizenship unless they choose to return to their native country and apply for permanent resident status via the channel available to all potential immigrants is tantamount to creating a kind of helot class. The trouble with this logic is that the unauthorized immigrants in question are in fact being given a very valuable legal privilege — the right to live and work in the U.S. — that many potential immigrants would happily accept, yet are unable to do so because they haven’t managed to successfully run the gauntlet of U.S. immigration law. Unauthorized immigrants are very welcome to renounce this status if they choose to go through the process that law-abiding potential immigrants are obliged to undertake. 

Michael Clemens of the Center for Global Development, an economist who is emerged as a leading light among advocates of free labor migration, is someone with whom I often disagree on immigration policy questions. But the quality of his analytical work is widely regarded as very high, and he is admirably open and clear about his normative convictions. Recently, he offered a defense of guest-worker visas, an idea that is related to the Skerry and Bolick and Bush proposals:

Research by myself and other economists shows that almost all guest workers’ conditions are vastly better than if they could not migrate. Authorized seasonal agricultural workers in the US earn vastly more than they could make at home: The minimum wage for an authorized Mexican seasonal agricultural laborer in the US is around $80 per day; about 16 times Mexico’s minimum wage for low-skill work of $4.95 per day. The workers generally know exactly what they’re getting into (most come back year after year), and they line up for the opportunity. Rigorous impact evaluations have shown massive positive benefits on workers’ families as well (here and here). Authorized guest workers are the exact opposite of ‘cheap labor’; guest work visas make their labor dramatically more valuable.

One way of interpreting this finding is that unauthorized immigrants who are allowed to become lawful permanent residents are far better situated that potential immigrants who are not granted the right to work and settle in the U.S., and who choose to abide by U.S. immigration laws.

Among advocates of a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as adults, many argue that the Skerry proposal is politically unviable as it fails to reckon with the growing political influence of Latino voters. Restrictionist critics of the idea often make a related argument, namely that even if something like a Bolick-Bush path to legalization is approved, those who benefit from it will inevitably be granted citizenship over time. The problem with these closely related critiques is that they fail to acknowledge the fact that the different between living as an unauthorized immigrant and living as a lawful permanent resident is vast. It is extremely difficult for unauthorized immigrants to open bank accounts or acquire driver’s licenses, barriers that greatly impede upward mobility. The Skerry proposal is so manifestly reasonable — all it asks is that the decision to become an unauthorized immigrant as a responsible adult bear a significant and enforceable consequence — that is is hard to see arguments against it succeeding if it’s advocates are clear about what it actually entails. 


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