Immigration reform can be “comprehensive” only if it answers three crucial questions: What number of immigrants can we assimilate without burdening our infrastructure, schools, labor markets and welfare programs? Within that number, what priority should be given to relatives of prior immigrants, skilled workers and refugees? What humane but effective measures will deter immigration by those ineligible for visas?
These are tough questions, and they were not made any easier when House Speaker John A. Boehner last week derided members of his own caucus who think that finding the right answers is more important than getting the questions “off the table.” Surely, the right answers will be easier to find if we focus on the real choices to be made, not on false choices packaged as sound bites.
Foremost among the false choices driving the current immigration debate is that between granting permanent residence to the 11 million illegal aliens thought to be living here or else deporting them en masse. Among countless examples is a Feb. 12 statement to C-SPAN by Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, in which he punctuated his call for a suspension of deportations by asking: “Can you imagine trying to round up 11 million people?”
In fact, if we don’t entice the whole illegal population to stay through a blanket offering of permanent legal residence, a great many of them will eventually go home on their own. Like Americans working overseas, they miss their native countries and their extended families.
Many are here to achieve a limited objective, such as building modest homes for their families in the villages where they were born. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, approximately 1.4 million illegal aliens returned to Mexico alone between 2005 and 2010.
To be sure, even without an amnesty, many illegal aliens will stay on indefinitely, living in the so-called “shadows.” Whether it is 2 million or 5 million, who has ever said that we should “round them all up” in order to deport them?
I have served for three decades on the advisory board of the nation’s oldest immigration reform organization and have met most of the politicians, advocates and pundits who support lower levels of immigration and better enforcement of immigration laws. Not one of them has ever promoted or even spoken of mass deportations as a viable tool of immigration policy.
Eleven million illegal aliens sounds like a lot of people, but according to the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics, the United States received 165 million foreign visitors in 2012. If we are helpless in the face of 11 million aliens who happen to be here today and aren’t disposed to leave, what are we to do with the 11 million aliens who may arrive in the next three weeks? They will come, often with families, to shop, see the sights, conduct business, attend school or fill temporary jobs, in most cases benefiting us as well as them.
However, in order to enjoy the benefits of those 11 million international visitors without being overwhelmed by overstayers, we cannot rely upon the “hard power” of arrest and deportation. We must depend instead on the “soft power” of withholding the means of a comfortable permanent residence, especially the opportunity to make a steady living.
Advocates of immigration reform understand this reality. In order to prevent the formation of a massive, new illegal population in the future, the comprehensive immigration bill passed by the Senate last year does not propose a more robust deportation program. Instead, it promises that all employers would eventually be required to verify that every new employee has a valid Social Security number.
In other words, a critical premise of “comprehensive” reform is that after reform is enacted, unlawfully present aliens will find it very difficult to get a job, will eventually run out of money and will quietly board a plane or a bus to go home. Deportation will be reserved for criminals and vagrants whose lifestyle permits them to reside here without honest work.
Yet, if mandatory employer verification will work for aliens coming here in the future, why not for illegal aliens who are already here? Amnesty advocates say that illegal aliens overwhelmingly come here to work, and I agree with them. Many are low-skilled laborers who change jobs frequently. Like the aliens on temporary work visas who labor beside them, illegal workers will become unemployable when their current jobs come to an end and, like their legal alien co-workers, will eventually need to go home. No need for mass deportations.
There may be a case for legalizing illegal aliens who were brought here as small children. There may also be a case for giving other illegal aliens a temporary residence permit to provide time for them to relocate their families and for their employers to find replacement workers from among the army of unemployed Americans.
However, such cases should be evaluated on their merits and not under the false supposition that the only alternative to blanket legalization of 11 million illegal aliens is “rounding them up.”
William Chip is a lawyer and a member of the Center for Immigration Studies’ board of directors.