Controlling Illegal Immigration: There Are Ways, But Little Will

By Mark Krikorian on March 21, 2001

Investor's Business Daily, March 21, 2001

"New data suggest that the U.S. has nearly twice the number of undocumented immigrants than officials thought - possibly 11 million or more, compared with earlier estimates of 6 million," the Los Angeles Times reports.

Is this really a news flash? After all, the discussion of immigration in America has been based on the assumption that mass immigration from Mexico is inevitable, whether or not it is legally permitted.

At their February meeting, President George Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox sought an "orderly framework for migration" to replace the current lawlessness at the border. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm has proposed a guest-worker plan to regulate Mexican workers in the U.S., which accepts high immigration from Mexico as a given.

This assumption is baseless. While we will never totally eliminate illegal immigration any more than we will eliminate other crimes, we know how to reduce its incidence dramatically. What's lacking is the will to do so. In an effort to control the supply of illegal aliens, we have focused almost exclusively on the border.

While much remains to be done in this area, we have largely ignored the need to reduce demand for illegals at the same time. This reduction in demand itself has two parts, related to the two forces which draw people to immigrate illegally: jobs and family.

The first magnet is jobs. Until 1986, federal law explicitly permitted employers to hire illegal aliens. In that year, Congress banned the employment of illegals as part of a package that also included amnesty for nearly 3 million illegal aliens already here.

Unfortunately, the ban on jobs for illegals has been poorly enforced. To begin with, Congress pulled its punches in 1986 by not instructing the Immigration and Naturalization Service to develop a verification system enabling employers to quickly check whether a new hire had the right to work in the U.S. It wasn't until 10 years later that Congress required the start of even pilot verification programs.

Even without such a tool, the INS has labored to enforce the law. And despite all the money thrown at the INS in recent years, Congress has refused to increase funding for worksite enforcement, so that there are now the equivalent of only 300 full-time INS agents nationwide trying to enforce the ban on hiring illegals.

What's more, even when the INS does try to stop the employment of illegals, Congress reacts with outrage and forces it to stop. For instance, in 1998, INS raids in Georgia caused the illegal workers picking Vidalia onions to flee. By the end of the week, both of the state's senators and three representatives sent a scathing letter to Attorney General Reno protesting the "lack of regard for farmers" by the INS. And when, in response, it developed a kinder, gentler enforcement tactic, focused initially on meatpacking plants in Nebraska, the political uproar was again so great that the INS backed off.

In fact, about a year ago Robert Bach, then a top INS official, admitted that the law was no longer being enforced: "It is just the market at work, drawing people to jobs, and the INS has chosen to concentrate its actions on aliens who are a danger to the community."

The other magnet which draws illegal workers is the presence of family and friends already here. Sociological research has shown that one of the most important factors in a person's decision to immigrate is whether a relative or native of his hometown is already here. In other words, immigration begets more immigration, regardless of legal status. An essential element, then, of any effort to reduce demand for illegal immigrants must be a reduction in legal immigration.

Though this flies in the face of the conventional wisdom that there is a bright line between legal and illegal immigration, it should come as no surprise, since immigrant communities are the prime means by which illegals are able to find housing, jobs and entree to the U.S.

The evidence has become overwhelming that legal and illegal immigration are merely two sides of the same coin. They've risen in tandem over the years, and most of the top illegal-alien source countries are among the top sources of legal immigration as well.

What's more, it's clear that legal and illegal immigrants are often the very same people, having used the "legal" immigration system to launder their status. To cite just one piece of administrative evidence, the INS reported last year that between 1987 and 1996, about 1.3 million illegal aliens were given green cards as part of the normal immigration process. In 1996 alone, 189,000 illegals were turned into legal immigrants.

Turning off the magnets drawing illegal immigrants here - through consistent, muscular enforcement of the ban on hiring illegals and through deep, permanent cuts in legal immigration - will result in a striking reduction in illegal immigration.

We may choose not to follow this course, despite the heavy burdens mass immigration imposes. But let us at least make an informed choice, not one based on demonstrably false assumptions.