Indianapolis Star, March 26, 2006
With an estimated 12 million undocumented people in the country, and an annual growth of 500,000 a year, everyone agrees America has a problem. Too many politicians give us only a false choice between mass deportations or mass amnesty coupled with increased legal immigration. But there is a third way: attrition through enforcement. This was the thinking behind the bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives in December.
The House realizes that mass roundups of millions are neither politically likely nor practical. Unlike the Senate, which is poised to legalize all who are in the U.S. illegally, the House also seems to understand that amnesty mocks the law-abiding and only spurs more illegal immigration. Besides, we've already tried it. In the 1980s, 2.7 million undocumented workers were legalized. Legal immigration has doubled since then, but we have three times as many undocumented. Legalization also does not solve most of the problems associated with illegal immigration.
For instance, the poorest and least-educated American workers would still face job competition from millions of legalized foreigners if they are allowed to stay. While polls generally show most Americans, including Hispanics, want less immigration, legal and illegal, those in positions of authority in this country generally sing the praises of mass immigration. One reason elites like it so much is that they do not face the job competition that lower-income Americans face. Only about 5 percent of lawyers and 8 percent of journalists are foreign born, compared to one-fourth of construction laborers and one-third of janitors.
When more educated and affluent people say, "immigrants only take jobs Americans don't want," what they really mean is that immigrants only take jobs they don't want. There are 75 million adult natives and legal immigrants already here who have no more than high school degrees. It is absurd to suggest we are desperately short of less-skilled workers.
Moreover, the undocumented create significant costs for taxpayers mainly because they are unskilled, not because they are illegal. At least 60 percent lack a high school diploma. Such people pay relatively little in taxes regardless of legal status because they earn so little in the modern American economy. My research indicates that the net fiscal drain (taxes minus costs) would triple if we legalized the undocumented. Unskilled illegals are costly, but unskilled legal immigrants cost even more because they can more easily access social programs.
A strategy of attrition through enforcement, on the other hand, is both realistic and avoids the problems of illegal immigration by making illegals go home or self-deport. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement estimates that 165,000 illegals go home on their own each year, 50,000 are deported and 25,000 die. But many more than that come in. If America becomes less hospitable to them, many more will simply decide to go home on their own.
For this reason the House bill requires that all new hires be checked against a database to make sure the person is legally allowed to work in the United States. It also increases penalties for employers who knowingly hire the undocumented. Of course, we have to make sure the new rules are enforced; in 2004 only three employers were fined for hiring illegals.
Although it does not go nearly far enough, the House bill requires more cooperation between the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement and local law enforcement. It also adds more agents and fencing to the border. At present, less than 4 percent of our southern border is fenced, and there are more New York City transit cops than Border Patrol agents on duty at any one time. Unfortunately, the bill does not require the IRS to stop accepting bogus Social Security numbers, nor does it roll back regulations that make it easy for illegals to open bank accounts or get tax refunds. But it is a good start.
Attrition through enforcement is really the only option if we want to solve our illegal immigration problem. Implementing such a policy will save taxpayers money, help American workers at the bottom of the labor market and restore the rule of law.
Steven A. Camarota is Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies.