Immigration '08

By Mark Krikorian on February 4, 2008

Online Debate Sponsored by the Los Angeles Times

How should Californians concerned about immigration vote on Feb. 5? Is tougher enforcement yielding any positive results? What will the immigration debate look like a year from now? Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, and UC San Deigo professor and New America Foundation fellow Tomás Jiménez debate.

Monday: Tougher enforcement, better results?

Tuesday: Who's the immigration candidate?

Wednesday: Checking up on enforcement-first

Thursday: Your papers, please

Friday: Immigration '09

Tougher enforcement, better results?

Monday, February 4, 2008

All we are saying is give enforcement a chance

By Mark Krikorian

Illegal aliens are people too.

And precisely because they are people like any others, they respond to incentives just like anyone else. What we've seen over the past year or so is that when government changes the incentives that illegal immigrants face, they change their behavior.

In other words, immigration enforcement is working.

By the end of this year, about half the additional border fencing mandated by Congress should be complete. Deportations and detention beds are up significantly. The Department of Homeland Security is pushing ahead with efforts to expose illegal workers who provided fake or stolen Social Security numbers to their employers. Sometime this year, all federal contractors will be required to check the legal status of new hires using the online E-Verify program. And virtually every state legislature in the nation is considering tough new immigration control measures, following in the footsteps of Georgia, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado.

The results are starting to come in. Fewer people are sneaking across the Mexican border. Some illegal immigrants are deporting themselves, while others are moving to less-inhospitable states, ensuring crackdowns there as well. Workplace enforcement is forcing employers to reach out to unemployed and underemployed American workers, as well as to turn to labor-saving technologies.

Are immigration restrictionists happy? You bet. But regaining control of immigration is a process, not an event. Our approach cannot be to focus intensively on enforcement for a few months or a year and then declare the borders secure and return to business as usual. This is has happened in the past — for instance, after the 1986 immigration law making it illegal for the first time to employ an illegal alien, crossings from Mexico fell until it became clear we didn't mean it, at which point they started rising again. This would appear to be what Sen. John McCain has in mind when he has spoken of a one- or two-year period of enforcement before implementing his amnesty.

Instead, the goal must be to change the climate surrounding the issue, to "define deviancy up," to adapt former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's phrase. Specifically, this would mean things like making legal status a labor standard that is internalized by employers and ensuring that visitors from abroad have good reason to fear that if they overstay their visas, they'll be identified.

Reducing the illegal population by cutting the inflow and increasing the outflow is not a pipe dream; we've seen self-deportation work on small scales before. For instance, after 9/11, Pakistani illegal aliens, the largest group from the Islamic world, got the message that circumstances for them had changed, and for every one detained by immigration authorities, 10 self-deported.

My own institution has modeled that consistent enforcement with a modest increase in resources over existing plans could reduce the illegal population by half in five years. In the event, maybe the reduction will be only 30%, or maybe 70%. But we can be quite sure that such a strategy of "attrition through enforcement" will work in significantly reducing the illegal population — but only if we keep it up.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and author of the forthcoming book, "The New Case Against Immigration, Both Legal and Illegal" (Sentinel).

The great pull of economic forces

By Tomás R. Jiménez

Dear Mark,

Good of you to acknowledge the humanity of undocumented immigrants. It's too bad you make unrealistic assumptions about the forces that shape their behavior.

You are right to note that efforts employed by the federal government and states have made life more difficult for undocumented immigrants. But the pull of jobs and the demand for labor are really what drive recent trends.

Let's start at the border. As you point out, we have to think about these things as processes, not events. We should thus be careful about the conclusions we draw from current "events." The history of very complicated processes tells a clear story. Beginning in the early 1990s, we fortified urban border crossings with officers, walls, lights and the latest detection technology. There was an initial drop in clandestine crossings, but it didn't last long. Migrants found ways to evade detection, usually by heading for the hills or the dessert, where thousands have tragically died in the unforgiving heat and cold.

Because the journey got tougher and more dangerous, human smugglers became indispensable for migrants, making smuggling big business. From 1982 to 1992, before stepped-up enforcement, migrants could expect to pay an average of $924 (in real dollars).Today, they are charging between $2,500 and $3,000. As a result, undocumented migrants are staying on the northern side of the border because going back and forth is too dangerous and costly. In short, border fortification keeps migrants in, not out. This unintended consequence reduces the number of apprehensions being made at the border, because fewer return trips to Mexico means fewer migrants at risk of being detained when they return to the U.S.

Furthermore, the data suggest that the supposed disincentives to migrate are not as effective as you imply. Migrants are fully aware of stepped-up enforcement, but it is not factoring heavily into their decisions to migrate. According to 2007 data collected by the Mexican Migration Field Research Program at UC San Diego, 91% of veteran and first-time migrants know about approved new fencing, and 73% are aware of National Guard deployment on the border. Yet only 29% cite the U.S. Border Patrol, fences or the National Guard as their single greatest concern about crossing. Fully 69% cite natural hazards, Mexican bandits or Mexican police as their primary concern. Increased border security certainly makes it difficult but not impossible to cross; 92% who tried to cross eventually made it, even if it took multiple attempts. So, even if we build it, they will still come as long as they can increase their wages eightfold by moving to the United States.

I'm not sure you have fully thought through other very plausible explanations that might account for recent migration and settlement patterns. Incentives do indeed shape behavior, but it's really the availability of jobs that is the biggest incentive. The economy is slowing, and jobs in sectors that rely on undocumented labor are drying up. Nearly one in five undocumented migrants in the labor force work in construction and mining. The construction industry has shed 284,000 jobs since September 2006. As Americans' wallets shrink, so too will jobs in the service sector, in which 31% of undocumented migrants work. A decline in the availability of work may explain much of the recent decline in border apprehensions.

"Attrition through enforcement" is made much more complicated by that fact that there are families involved. About 30% of all unauthorized families (1.96 million) contain children who are U.S. citizens. Should we count on these people to "self-deport" themselves and their U.S.-citizen children? It's not likely to happen.

My point is not that undocumented immigration is good or that migrants' tenacity and cleverness render anything we do ineffective. My point is that we are fighting against powerful economic forces that we helped create. We have a free trade agreement with Mexico (NAFTA), which allows for the free movement of capital and goods. Yet we continue with a schizophrenic policy that fights the movement of labor that tends to follow capital and goods. It would make more sense to move our resources and energy from trying to restrict immigration to trying to manage it so that we maximize the benefits to all.

Take care,

Tomás R. Jiménez is an assistant professor of sociology at UC San Diego and a fellow at the New America Foundation.

Who's the immigration candidate?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Good choices in both parties

By Tomás R. Jiménez

As millions of Californians vote to nominate their party's presidential candidate, it appears that fewer and fewer are relying on their beliefs about immigration to make their decision. The souring economy and the war in Iraq are weighing much heavier on their minds. Still, as I'm sure you would agree, Mark, immigration is an important issue and one about which many voters are nonetheless concerned.

Who are the right candidates on immigration? Let's start with the Democrats. As with most of the issues, there is little daylight between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Both favor comprehensive immigration reform that looks a lot like the proposal the Senate voted on in 2006: increased border security, a pathway to citizenship and an electronic employment verification system. Much has been made of their disagreement over whether to allow undocumented immigrants to have a driver's license. Becausse this is a state matter over which our next president will have little power, it is not a relevant point of difference.

I think that Obama has the slight edge. Obama was one of the four members of the Senate who was deeply involved in negotiations on the 2006 comprehensive reform bill, so he knows the political side of the issue as well as anyone. He has gone on record as saying that he would address immigration reform in his first year in office. This should attract voters who actually want to see progress on immigration reform. Central to his immigration plan is a restructuring of the federal bureaucracy to reduce backlogs for green card applications and to make our immigration system more responsive to labor demands. Backlogs are the elephant in the room that everyone in the immigration debate seems to ignore, and Obama's emphasis on this issue makes him a good choice.

For those picking up a Republican ballot at the polls, Sen. John McCain is the clear choice. Republican nominees have been playing a game of bloody knuckles to prove who can be tougher on "illegals." McCain has admirably stayed out of this game. Lately, he has placed much more emphasis on border security as a prerequisite for other aspects of immigration reform, but he nonetheless believes in a comprehensive program that includes a pathway to legal status and a way to meet labor demands. He was the Republican driving force behind the 2006 comprehensive Senate bill. This, combined with the fact that he represents a border state, means that he knows how to navigate the political minefield that is immigration reform.

What also separates McCain from his competitors is his consistency on the issue and his pragmatic approach. He avoids fear-mongering, favoring instead a reasonable approach that takes account of the complex mix of economic, social and political forces that shape migration patterns. He also sees the need for reform vis-à-vis labor rights and human rights. McCain readily notes that lacking documentation opens up immigrants to labor abuses, and he sees the mounting number of deaths along the border as a tragic consequence of a failed policy. For these reasons, McCain stands head and shoulders above his Republican competitors when it comes to immigration.

If McCain is the Republican nominee, it will be interesting to see whether immigration is a factor in the general election. McCain's stance and that of both Democratic contenders are very similar. Given that campaigns tend to silence debate on issues that do not highlight differences, immigration may not receive the attention it deserves. Silence on such an important issue would not be good.

Don't buy McCain's tough-enforcement conversion

By Mark Krikorian


Your assessment that supporters of amnesty and open borders should vote for Sen. John McCain or Sen. Barack Obama today is correct. I also agree that, if McCain is the nominee, "immigration may not receive the attention it deserves" in the general election campaign, mainly because McCain holds the same beliefs as either of his likely opponents, so there's nothing to debate. That would be a repeat of the 2000 and 2004 races, in which President Bush had the same views on immigration as Al Gore and Sen. John Kerry.

But your version of the developing conventional wisdom that "fewer and fewer [voters] are relying on their beliefs about immigration to make their decision" doesn't ring true. Obviously the Iraq war and the economy are important factors in everyone's thinking, but there's a story line being developed by elite commentators that the outcry over immigration was a flash in the pan, driven by a noisy minority, and now there's a voter backlash against it.


The best evidence of the resonance of the immigration issue is the primary campaign itself. Every Republican candidate is now ostensibly supporting tough enforcement. Other than Reps. Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter, most of the field was not especially hawkish on immigration, but they changed fast. Mitt Romney, after seeming open to amnesty in 2005, came out against it and repeatedly attacked Rudy Giuliani for presiding over a sanctuary city while mayor of New York. Giuliani saw that he needed to sound tough, so he came out against the Senate amnesty bill last summer and told audiences, "I could end illegal immigration in three years." Mike Huckabee's comments as Arkansas governor in support of illegal immigrants led me to think he'd be a McCain clone on the issue — but instead he modeled his current immigration platform on an article I wrote in the National Review. Fred Thompson explicitly promoted "attrition through enforcement" and, along with Huckabee, actually proposed significant reductions in legal immigration, the first time that's happened in a presidential campaign in generations.

Even "Amnesty John" McCain is saying that he "got the message" from voters last summer who opposed his amnesty bill and that he realizes now that he has to "secure the borders first." This is a transparent lie, as his prominent supporters understand, but it's a lie that many voters coming late to the campaign are falling for. McCain is succeeding despite his decades-long track record in favor of amnesty (and bilingual education, racial quotas and the rest) precisely because of this change in rhetoric, and also because those voters who do see through his prevarications are divided among the other candidates.

Even on the Democratic side, where there's little disagreement, Hillary Clinton felt she had to back away from her support of driver's licenses for illegal immigrants to preserve her political viability in the general election.

How should immigration hawks vote? If they're Democrats, Clinton is the least-bad choice because she's a tiny bit better than Obama and less likely to expend political capital pushing amnesty in Congress. On the Republican side, whoever is the strongest candidate opposing McCain is the obvious choice — Romney in California, for instance, but Huckabee in Alabama or Rep. Ron Paul in Alaska.

Checking up on enforcement-first

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The good news: Adam Smith was right!

By Mark Krikorian

Tomás: The fact that the White House has permitted the Department of Homeland Security to actually start doing its job over the last year or so is good news in itself, but it is also having other positive consequences. By starting to make it harder to employ illegal aliens, immigration enforcement is improving the prospects of all those who compete with illegals for work. This includes anyone marginal to the labor market: high school dropouts, of course, but also black and Latino men, teenagers in general, the elderly looking for part-time work, single moms who need flexible work hours, ex-convicts, recovering addicts and the physically and mentally disabled. Anyone whom employers might hesitate to hire — for whatever reasons, good or bad — starts to look better when the labor market is tighter. After all, the laws of supply and demand have not yet been repealed. We've seen evidence of this all over the country for some time now. Last month, the president of a steel company in Arizona, where the state government is cracking down on the employment of illegals, described how the new enforcement is forcing him to reach out to Americans and legal immigrants: "We've raised wages, competing for a diminishing supply (of workers). We've been on a campaign of quality improvement, training, scouring the waterfront, so to speak, for American vets, ex-offenders trying to find their way back into society." Isn't this good news?

When Crider Inc., a Stillmore, Ga., chicken plant lost its mostly illegal workforce after a series of raids, management started trying to attract workers it had previously avoided:

But for local African Americans, the dramatic appearance of federal agents presented an unexpected opportunity. Crider suddenly raised pay at the plant. An advertisement in the weekly Forest-Blade newspaper blared "Increased Wages" at Crider, starting at $7 to $9 an hour — more than a dollar above what the company had paid many immigrant workers. The company began offering free transportation from nearby towns and free rooms in a company-owned dormitory near the plant. For the first time in years, local officials say, Crider aggressively sought workers from the area's state-funded employment office — a key avenue for low-skilled workers to find jobs. Of 400 candidates sent to Crider — most of them black — the plant hired about 200.

As the article noted, "For the first time since significant numbers of Latinos began arriving in Stillmore in the late 1990s, the plant's processing lines were made up predominantly of African Americans." Again, is this not good news? Employers, and the ethnic activists doing their bidding, will tell us that this is actually bad news, that these American workers aren't as productive, hardworking or docile as the illegal immigrants they replaced. In some case, this may actually be true — there's no use denying the real human capital deficiencies of some of our workforce.

But whatever obligation we may have to foreigners as children of the same God, we have a greater obligation to our fellow countrymen — an obligation at least not to sabotage the efforts of our poorest compatriots at building a better life for themselves.

Bad news: rotting crops, dead migrants

By Tomás R. Jiménez

Dear Mark,

The news is not all good. In fact, some of the good news you cite makes for a nice story, but it does not do very well under the scrutiny of more systematic analysis.

Let's start with your claim that cracking down on employers has made it harder to hire undocumented workers, thereby "improving the prospects of all those who compete with illegals for work." There is no evidence that there was competition to begin with. If there were competition, we would expect it to show up in declining wages for the most human-capital-deficient U.S.-born workers: high school dropouts.

Yet, there is little evidence that immigrants are harming them. In a 2005 paper published in the Economic Journal, David Card from UC Berkeley finds that there is no relationship between the presence of low-skilled immigrants and the wages of low-skilled U.S.-born workers. Card concludes, "New evidence from the 2000 census reconfirms the main lesson of earlier studies: Although immigration has a strong effect on relative supplies of different skill groups, local labor market outcomes of low-skilled natives are not much affected by these relative supply shocks." Translation: There is no evidence of competition between low-skilled immigrants and those who you assume compete with them.

Even when economists do find an effect, it is incredibly modest. George Borjas (who advocates reducing levels of low-skilled immigration) and Lawrence Katz, both Harvard economists, find that the presence of undocumented Mexican immigrants may drive down wages of high-school dropouts by a mere 3.6% when accounting for the increases in capital investment allowed for by lower labor costs. This, Mark, is the worst-case scenario that economists have found — hardly the stiff competition that you'd like to think exists.

Besides, labor markets have been tight for a long time. The average unemployment rate between 1993 and 2006 was a very low 5.2%. These are precisely the years during which we have seen a dramatic increase in undocumented immigration. Indeed, the low unemployment rate helps explain why there's been so much undocumented immigration: the high demand for workers in a tight labor market.

Assuming that stepped-up enforcement has worked, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence — of the sort that you rely on — that the news is bad. There has been a slew of news reports about farmers in agriculturally-rich areas who have watched their crops rot on the vine because they cannot find enough workers for the harvest. Consider this from the San Francisco Chronicle:

Some growers are planting fewer acres than normal as they scramble to save the season. [The trade association Western Growers] is worried that the lack of workers — mostly immigrants from Mexico and Central America — could cause $1 billion in losses to California agriculture this year.

In a tight labor market, it's hard to find a workforce to do the work that immigrants have been doing for the last 100 years.

The really tragic news is that stepped-up border fortification continues to drive migrants to take drastic measures to cross our borders to find work. On Monday, I mentioned that migrants are paying between $2,500 and $3,000 to hire smugglers to guide them through dangerous terrain to avoid detection. The degree of danger is no more evident in the number of deaths reported along the border in the last few years. Since 1997, nearly 4,500 deaths have been reported along the U.S.-Mexico border (not counting the second half of 2007). Most of the deaths are caused by environmental factors such as extreme heat and cold.

The lives of these "children of the same God," as you rightly call them, are being sacrificed at the altar of tougher enforcement. Given the economic realities of immigration and labor and the dubious effectiveness of the enforcement-only approach, it appears that the enforcement devotees are praying to a false god.

Your papers, please

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Do you want more unlicensed drivers?

By Tomás R. Jiménez

The Real ID Act of 2005 created a uniform set of standards for state-issued driver's licenses and IDs required for entering federal facilities, boarding airplanes and entering nuclear power plants. What may appear to be a reasonable plan has lots of devilish details that do nothing to change our broken immigration system while making life miserable for states and American drivers. In fact, 17 states have already rejected Real ID because of the costs and problems related to it.

The law is partly designed to ensure that terrorists can't harm us by requiring all individuals applying for a driver's license to show proof of identity and legal residency. The logic goes like this: If the terrorists can't get ID cards, and people without a standardized ID can't get on planes or enter federal facilities and nuclear power plants, then we are preventing terrorists from hitting us again. But this assumes a lot about the relationship between undocumented immigration and terrorism. It also assumes that we know whether someone is a terrorist or not.

Let's imagine that Real ID was in place on 9/11. Would it have prevented the 19 hijackers from boarding those four planes? No. The hijackers had legal documentation that would have allowed them to get driver's licenses even under the provisions of Real ID. Terrorist organizations are vast, complex, highly trained and well funded. They have the resources and know-how to make some of the best forged documents in the world or recruit people who can get valid documents. This is not to say that we should just give up, but we certainly shouldn't be fooled into thinking that new documents are going to fully protect us.

Only adding to the ridiculousness of the law is the fact that we'll end up having to trust DMV workers to make important national security decisions, like whether or not someone's documents are valid. If you think waiting in line at the DMV is bad now, wait until you have to get your Real ID.

Real ID is not going to solve our immigration problems either. Requiring proof of legal residency for a Real ID doesn't mean that undocumented immigrants will stop driving or "self deport." Only seven states allow undocumented immigrants to have a license, and yet undocumented immigration continues. The Real ID law does allow states the option of issuing licenses solely for the use of driving, but licenses must clearly state the limits of their use. Since only those without legal documentation are likely to ask for such a "driver's license-only card," these licenses might as well have "undocumented immigrant" emblazoned on them. Talk about a disincentive.

Wouldn't we actually be safer if more, not fewer people had a driver's license? Of course we would. A license certifies that an individual has taken a driver's training course and has met a minimum standard of driving know-how. Unlicensed drivers, on the other hand, have no formal training and are thus generally more dangerous behind the wheel. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, unlicensed drivers are five times more likely to be in a fatal crash than unlicensed drivers. So much for keeping us safe.

Furthermore, unlicensed drivers are uninsured, raising premiums for the rest of us. States that have expanded access to driver's licenses regardless of legal status have seen dramatic improvements in the rate of insurance coverage. New Mexico reduced its uninsured rate from 33% in 2002 to just 10.6% in 2007. Likewise, Utah reduced the proportion of uninsured drivers from 10% in 1998 to 5.1% in 2007.

In the end, we have a law that thickens the bureaucratic process involved in getting a license and does nothing to change our broken immigration system. In fact, this effort at protection may very well wind up accomplishing quite the opposite.

I want my Real ID

By Mark Krikorian


Every modern society requires a system of identification — there's simply no way to avoid that in a large, urbanized nation where few people live and work in the same community with the same neighbors their whole lives.

In most countries, that need for ID is filled by the central government with some form of national identification card. America's more decentralized experience has led to a different result — a patchwork system of state driver's licenses serving as our de facto national ID system.

The goal of the Real ID Act is to set some minimum federal standards for this decentralized arrangement, like requiring that states verify the identity and legal status of people being issued licenses (and you thought we did that already!). This is in part to avoid the need for a national ID card, which would not only be costly and time-consuming to set up from scratch, but is also fiercely opposed by many Americans. The 9/11 Commission called for such federal standards, noting that, among other things, seven of the IDs obtained by the 9/11 hijackers were obtained using false claims of residence in Virginia. The Real ID Act was an outgrowth of the 9/11 Commission's recommendations, buttressed by input from the American Assn. of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

Opposition to these common-sense standards comes from two sources, one legitimate, one not. First, some states are whining about money, concocting hilariously inflated cost estimates for compliance with the new law. Congress has responded by stretching out the deadlines somewhat and providing some additional funding for genuine state needs — this makes perfect sense.

The second objection to the law's standards comes from those who want to ensure that illegal immigrants are able to continue embedding themselves in American society. Thus, driver's licenses for illegal immigrants serve as a form of de facto amnesty for illegals, incorporating them into the institutions of our society and making any congressional action on legalization a mere formality.

Making amnesty a fait accompli is also the rationale behind the Mexican government's push to have its illegal-immigrant ID card, the Matricula Consular, recognized by as many banks and police departments s possible.

Denying ID to those who have no right to be here isn't some magic bullet that will make all illegals go home overnight. But it is critical to any larger strategy to that end. By making it as hard as possible to live here illegally — combined with more conventional enforcement measures such as fencing and worksite verification — we can, in fact, reduce illegal settlement and increase the number of illegals who give up and go home. Sí, se puede!

Immigration '09

Friday, February 8, 2008

Enforce the law, then we'll talk

By Mark Krikorianz


Will Congress enact your preferred policies next year when there will be a larger Democratic majority and a pro-amnesty president?

Don't hold your breath.

When President Bush came into office seven years ago, the smart money was on amnesty passing in short order. But even before 9/11, it had run into a wall.

Then when the Senate passed an amnesty in the spring of 2006, veteran Washington hands all said the fix was in. But the House balked and nothing happened.

When the Democrats took control of Congress a few months later, they and the White House again assumed amnesty would roll through quickly. But they couldn't even get it through the Senate.

Meanwhile, border and worksite enforcement is taking on a momentum of its own. Half of the additional fencing mandated by Congress will be completed by the end of this year, and I can assure you that Republican lawmakers and advocacy groups will keep a close eye on further progress. Employing illegal immigrants will continue to become more difficult, as more and more firms sign up for the E-Verify system, including all federal contractors, and as the Social Security "no-match letter" program goes into effect after it overcomes legal challenges.

All this means that when the new president and Congress take office next January, they will not likely want to make legalizing illegal aliens their first priority. Clinton or Obama would be much more likely to use their honeymoon with Congress to try to move forward on health care, while just yesterday McCain pledged (for whatever that's worth) that he would not move forward on amnesty until there was "widespread consensus" (whatever that means) on the success of border enforcement.

Blogger Mickey Kaus has theorized — rightly, I think — that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton would be the least likely or able to move an amnesty through Congress as president. Not only is her rejection of driver's licenses for illegal aliens a sign of greater caution, but anything she champions would be vehemently opposed by a united Republican bloc in Congress, something that would not happen with Sen. John McCain in the White House.

And, in fact, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, former Clinton White House official (Josh Lyman played him in "The West Wing") and architect of the 2006 Democratic takeover of the House, has said that amnesty would not be taken up until Clinton's second term.

This doesn't mean there won't be plenty of wrangling over immigration. Sens. Ted Kennedy and Arlen Specter are likely to want to keep pushing a big McCain-Kennedy-style amnesty. Smaller immigration measures will come up and could pass, like the DREAM Act, the AgJobs bill or higher caps for certain indentured labor programs like the H1-B or H2-B visas. And there will always be reminders of the consequences of lax enforcement, like the controversy over the past couple of weeks about whether illegal immigrants should get checks from the stimulus package.

But tough enforcement measures could also pass, notably Democratic Rep. Heath Shuler's SAVE Act, a bipartisan measure with more than 140 co-sponsors that may even get a vote this year. Most importantly, this bill would phase in mandatory electronic verification of all new hires, institutionalizing the tools needed to help turn off the magnet of jobs.

If there's one underlying theme that will shape immigration politics and policymaking over the next few years, it is credibility in enforcement. Only after the political elite has shown a willingness to enforce the law — and proven that willingness through significant reductions in the illegal population — will the public be ready even to debate proposals for amnesty.

Restrictionists are out of touch

By Tomás R. Jiménez

Dear Mark,

I certainly will not be holding my breath. The likelihood of the next Congress and the eventual president passing a sensible, comprehensive immigration reform package is indeed small. Our next president — Obama, Clinton or McCain — will not be terribly eager to champion immigration reform, knowing full well that the hangover from any such debate might compromise the political goodwill needed to move on other pressing agenda items.

What are we left with?

On the economic front, the economy will continue its slide, taking with it lots of jobs in sectors that rely on undocumented immigrants. Many immigrants will head home, and others won't bother to make the dangerous journey because the faltering economy will neutralize the job magnet that attracts them. Those who favor enforcement-only (or enforcement first) will claim victory and tell us that enforcement works, ignoring the fact that labor markets have a mind of their own.

At the grassroots level, restrictionists will continue to paint over an immensely complicated issue with the comfortable colors of simplicity. Terms such as "amnesty" (which, Mark, you use nine times above) and "open border advocates," and bromides such as "illegal means illegal," will remain popular on their palette. The picture is much easier to comprehend from this perspective, but it does nothing to address the problem. It only makes photo ops in front of border fences go down a lot easier than smart, sophisticated policies that address the economic and social realities of immigration.

Along the border, some migrants will continue to make the journey, risking life, limb and their savings for a chance to work in the United States. As the walls go up, migrants and their smugglers will become more daring and creative in the methods they use to get across the border. The price for coyotes will continue to climb, and so will the death toll along the border.

Inaction at the federal level will continue to spur policy action at the state and local levels. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of Nov.16, 1,562 bills related to immigrants or immigration had been introduced among the 50 state legislatures, and 244 had become law in 46 states. The overwhelming majority of these policies fall on the restrictionist side.

But others will look beyond the border and to the future. Illinois continues to implement a comprehensive immigrant integration policy, aimed at helping America's newcomers become fuller participants in society. The policy includes English language classes, citizenship drives and welcome centers. New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine has signed an executive order to create a high-level panel that will begin work on a similar program in his state. Our own federal government is even getting involved in integration, launching a website that includes a wealth of information for immigrants and where people can soon find free online English classes. The U.S. Office of Citizenship is holding training sessions on how to teach English and civics classes for teachers connected to local organizations and community colleges. Hopefully, folks on Capitol Hill will put as much energy into expanding these programs as they do into building fences.

The theme coming from the vocal extremists may be enforcement first, but the rest of America has a different view. According to a nationwide Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll taken last December (PDF), 60% of all registered voters (including 64% of Republicans and 63% of Democrats) favor a proposal to "allow illegal immigrants who have been living and working in the United States for a number of years, and who do not have a criminal record, to start on a path to citizenship by registering … paying a fine, getting fingerprinted, and learning English, among other requirements."

While you and a few vocal activists may continue to beat the drum of enforcement only, it appears that the large majority is marching to the beat of a different drummer. Congress and the White House might want to march along.