Debating Immigration: An Analyst Defends Herself, and Her Critics Rejoin

By Mark Krikorian on October 10, 2005

National Review, October 10, 2005

Read Tamar Jacoby's op--ed, to which this responds

MARK KRIKORIAN REPLIES: Tamar Jacoby is ubiquitous -- from the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post to The Weekly Standard and New Republic, she has been the most enterprising and persuasive booster for an amnesty allowing 11 million illegal aliens to remain in the United States.

But she hasn't been persuasive enough.

Let's start, as she did, with the economy. She says that those of us who dispute the need for immigrant labor have our heads in the sand. If she means that our economy has managed to accommodate 11 million illegal aliens, and that their magical, overnight disappearance would be disruptive, then of course she's right. But that's not what she has in mind. Instead, her contention is that America is running out of a vital resource -- high--school dropouts who become unskilled laborers -- and thus needs to keep importing workers "to sustain the industries that rely on unskilled labor."

When employers say this, we all understand that they're seeking government--approved access to cheap labor outside the regular system, a government "subsidy" for their low--tech, labor--intensive operations. For instance, California tomato farmers testified in the 1960s that "the use of braceros [Mexican guestworkers] is absolutely essential to the survival of the tomato industry." But that labor program was ended anyway, and illegal immigrants did not immediately pick up the slack -- so the farmers concluded that their investment in lobbying hadn't paid off, and instead they invested in harvest machinery. The result: a quadrupling of production over the following 30 years, and a drop in the post--inflation retail price of tomato products.

In fact, no economist has ever discovered a significant net economic benefit from immigration. Perhaps she knows something they don't, but I suspect that Jacoby is just acting out the old economist joke about assuming something that doesn't exist.

Her description of what would be needed to actually enforce current immigration law is just as inaccurate. She imagines a "permanent state of siege" requiring "draconian measures." In reality, the consistent application of perfectly ordinary law--enforcement tools would be enough: an end to government's winking at illegal employment; a requirement that new hires be verified through the simple online tool that the immigration service already provides (and that I use at my immigration think tank); streamlined deportation rules; Israeli--style fencing along the parts of the border most often used by illegal immigrants. This will not make the problem vanish overnight. It is instead a genuinely conservative approach to a long--neglected problem, an approach that allows us through attrition to shrink the number of illegals over time.

As in all things, we would eventually reach a point of diminishing returns, where further reductions in the number of illegals might require police--state tactics. Then Jacoby's amnesty would at least be a legitimate topic for discussion. But amnesty shouldn't even be on the table until after the authorities have demonstrated a commitment to enforce the law -- a commitment that is almost entirely lacking in this administration.

Our immigration strategy should be clear: enforcement first.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.