Legal, Good / Illegal, Bad?

By Mark Krikorian on June 1, 2007

National Review Online, June 1, 2007

A common theme in discussing the immigration issue is "I love legal immigration, it's just the illegal kind I'm against." And there's no question that political elite's refusal to enforce the law is the most immediate immigration problem we face.

But the "legal is good, illegal is bad" mantra will only get you so far. Even if we were to address the pervasive illegality of today's immigration flow - by, say, amnestying all the illegal aliens and increasing legal immigration, as the appalling Senate bill calls for - most of the problem would remain.

To begin with, the legal and illegal immigration flows are inextricably intertwined. It's not as though legals are from Mars and illegals are from Venus - they come from the same countries, live in the same communities and families, and are often the same exact people. Take Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayet, for instance. He was the Egyptian immigrant terrorist who decided to celebrate the Fourth of July in 2002 by killing Jews at the El Al counter at Los Angeles International Airport. He had arrived legally years before as a tourist, then shortly before his permission to be here expired (which would have turned him into an illegal alien) he applied for asylum here, thus preserving legal status while his claim was adjudicated. After he was rejected and stayed here anyway, he became an illegal alien. Later, his wife won the visa lottery and he, as her spouse, also got a green card, making him legal again.

More broadly, as James Edwards of the Hudson Institute has written, legal and illegal immigration have risen in tandem, the same countries dominate the two flows, legal immigration creates the networks that enables illegal immigration to take place, and the screwy mechanics of the legal immigration system raise expectations abroad such that people see themselves as entitled to come to America, whether they have permission yet or not.

What's more, every year large numbers of illegal aliens use the "legal" immigration system to launder their status. Edwards points to a survey of new "legal" immigrants which found that fully one-third had been illegal aliens at one point or another, a figure that rose to two-thirds for Mexicans. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that our "legal" immigration system is a permanent rolling amnesty for illegal aliens.

Not only are the flows of legal and illegal immigration related, but the impacts they have on the United States are similar. The effect that illegal immigration has in reducing wages for low-skilled American workers, for instance, is only partly caused by the illegality. The majority of illegal immigrants actually work on the books, having provided a fake or stolen Social Security number, but they command low wages regardless because most of them lack even a high-school education and thus are unequipped for advancement in a modern society. In other words, the chief problem that immigration creates for less-educated or young or minority American workers is that it floods the job market with competitors, illegal and legal.

The same is true with regard to government services. In fact, here it is, in a perverse sense, actually better that immigrants be illegal, because they cost less. Households headed by illegal aliens represent a drain of some $10 billion a year at the federal level alone - i.e., they consume $10 billion more in federal government services than they pay in federal taxes. This is because they work, they're poor, and they have lots of children, and our welfare system is specifically designed to help the working poor with children. But if the illegals were legalized, the costs to federal taxpayers would balloon, nearly tripling to $29 billion each year. This is because when you amnesty an uneducated illegal alien with a large family, all you do is turn him into an uneducated legal alien with a large family - his earnings, and thus his tax payments, do indeed go up somewhat, but his use of government services increases much, much more because now he's legal, but he's still uneducated.

Likewise in other areas. For instance, children born to immigrant mothers are responsible for 100 percent of the increase in the school-aged population - the strain this puts on local communities has nothing to do with the parents' legal status. Immigrants using emergency rooms as doctor's offices do so not because of a lack of legal status but because a lack of skills that can command high wages in a modern economy.

As Ramesh Ponnuru has written, "America has some serious immigration problems, but they are not distinctively problems of illegal immigration." Calls of "Enforcement First" by critics of the Bush-Kennedy amnesty bill are surely the place to start the immigration debate, because without a commitment to enforce the rules, it doesn't much matter what the rules are. But in the long run, the substance of the rules themselves is the more important question.

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