A Stern Face and a Warm Welcome

By Mark Krikorian on October 27, 2003

National Review, October 27, 2003

To the casual observer, it might seem that the federal government has made real progress on immigration since 9/11. And, in fact, some of the measures we've seen over the past two years are encouraging signs that immigration is again being taken seriously, after decades of malign neglect: the shift of the immigration function to the new Homeland Security Department, progress toward developing a tracking system for foreign visitors, and registration of aliens from certain Middle Eastern countries.

But these are scattered moves lacking an overall strategy; the discussion of immigration policy in the political realm remains mired in the "nation of immigrants" clich's. This drift in immigration policy has allowed the illegal-alien population to balloon to 9 million, with two consequences: First, irresponsible proposals for vast amnesties (usually tarted up as guest-worker programs) have been put forward by, among others, the White House and Sens. John McCain and Edward Kennedy. Second, the policy vacuum has enabled immigration policy to be set, by default, by state and local authorities, under the direction of the Mexican foreign ministry. Jurisdictions across the country are progressively enacting a series of measures that amount to a de facto illegal-alien amnesty--California's decision to issue driver's licenses to illegal aliens being only the most recent example.

There are many things the federal government should leave to lower levels of government or the private sector, but management of immigration isn't one of them. It's time Congress filled this vacuum, and with something other than the vacuities emanating from McCain, Kennedy, et al.

Many public-spirited lawmakers have introduced bills to address specific problems, no doubt calculating correctly that piecemeal measures have a better chance of passage. But what is the overall framework such measures should fit into? What should our immigration "meta-policy" be, the policy that determines our other policies?

We needn't go far to discover it. The popular wisdom on immigration, inchoate and incomplete as it is, should be our guide. The American people, in every survey taken, say they prefer less immigration and tighter controls--and with good reason, given the economic, fiscal, social, and political problems caused by mass immigration. At the same time, we can be proud of the fact that we are the least xenophobic society in human history, making Americans out of people from every corner of the earth. This recognizes the two parts of any approach to this issue: immigration policy and immigrant policy. The first governs the conditions we place on admission of newcomers, the second governs how we treat them once they're here. Thus the answer: a meta-policy that combines low immigration and no-nonsense enforcement with an enthusiastic embrace of lawfully admitted newcomers. In other words, a pro-immigrant policy of low immigration--fewer immigrants but a warmer welcome.

The starting point of immigration policy must be adequate capacity, and willingness, actually to enforce the law, whatever the content of the law happens to be. Lack of enforcement has been the central problem of immigration policy. Congress can design the most elegant legal and administrative framework imaginable, but it won't matter if the immigration authorities are not permitted to use it to enforce the law. Let me be clear: The chief reason for the lack of enforcement of our immigration laws is not incompetence or malfeasance on the part of the immigration bureaucracy, though there is surely plenty of that to go around. The real problem is the firm determination in Congress and successive administrations that the law not be enforced. For instance, when the INS conducted raids during Georgia's Vidalia onion harvest in 1998, thousands of illegal aliens--knowingly hired by the farmers--abandoned the fields to avoid arrest. By the end of the week, both of the state's senators and three congressmen had sent an outraged letter to Washington complaining that the INS "does not understand the needs of America's farmers," and that was the end of that.

After an attempt at devising a "kinder, gentler" means of enforcing the immigration law was similarly slapped down, the INS got the message. It developed a new interior enforcement policy that gave up on trying to reassert control over immigration and focused almost entirely on the important, but narrow, issues of criminal aliens and smugglers. The title of a New York Times story in 2000 sums it up: "I.N.S. Is Looking the Other Way as Illegal Immigrants Fill Jobs."

Assuming we can actually muster the political will to act, what can we do with the 9 million illegals and how can we prevent more from coming? The issue is usually presented as a stark choice: arrest them all or give them amnesty. Since no one thinks we can, or even should, deport 9 million people en masse, the only remaining choice would seem to be amnesty, whatever fig leaves are used to mask the truth. But amnesty and overnight mass deportation are not the only choices. There is a third way: squeezing the illegal population so that it declines through attrition. The government estimates that each year, some 400,000 people leave the settled illegal-alien population, by returning home voluntarily, being deported, or getting a green card. The problem is that 800,000 new illegal aliens settle here each year, more than replacing the outflow.

The enforcement approach we must adopt, then, is clear. If we put pressure on illegal immigrants so that more of them leave and fewer new ones come, we will see the illegal population start to decline, allowing the problem, over time, to take care of itself. Nor is this mere speculation; we've actually seen it work on a small scale already. The immigration authorities recently concluded a "Special Registration" program for visitors from Islamic countries. The affected nation with the largest illegal-alien population was Pakistan, with an estimated 26,000 illegals here in 2000. Once it became clear that the government was actually serious about enforcing the immigration law--at least with regard to Middle Easterners--Pakistani illegals started leaving in droves on their own. The Pakistani embassy estimated that more than 15,000 of its illegal aliens have left the U.S., and the Washington Post reported in May the "disquieting" fact that in Brooklyn's Little Pakistan the mosque is one-third empty, business is down, there are fewer want ads in the local Urdu-language paper, and "For Rent" signs are sprouting everywhere.

This example highlights the applicability of "broken windows" policing to immigration. As Michelle Malkin has pointed out, citing James Q. Wilson's famous Atlantic Monthly article, ignoring "minor" immigration violations creates the same atmosphere of disorder as leaving broken windows unrepaired does in a run-down neighborhood. And, as Mayor Giuliani demonstrated in New York, the reassertion of control by the government over seemingly minor matters reestablishes a sense of order, leading to decreased lawbreaking in general.

The enforcement initiative that would yield the most bang for the buck in restoring a sense of order would be enforcement of employer sanctions (the shorthand term for the ban on hiring illegal aliens). Ideally, we need a national system to enable employers to determine whether new hires have the right to work in the United States. In fact, several pilot verification programs developed by the INS continue to operate, and participating employers are generally pleased with them. But developing a nationwide system will take time, and face political opposition. In the meantime, rather than letting the perfect be the enemy of the good, we should implement less comprehensive measures that can be achieved more easily and still have a very significant effect. For instance, an initiative to notify employers of Social Security numbers that didn't match the accompanying names has met with great success.

This principle underlying employer sanctions--requiring proof of legal status--should be extended to other activities that most people engage in but are infrequent: getting a driver's license, registering an automobile, opening a bank account, applying for a mortgage, enrolling in higher education, getting a business license.

Once an infrastructure is in place to enforce our immigration policy, what should the content of that policy be? Most immigration, regardless of the source or destination, is permitted for one of three reasons: family connections, employment needs, and pure humanitarian concern. Family-based immigration now accounts for nearly two-thirds of green-card recipients. The relationships that give rise to special immigration rights should be limited to the nuclear family: husbands, wives, and small children of U.S. citizens. That would reduce immigration based on blood or marriage by about half, to some 300,000 per year.

In addition to a handful of Einsteins, employment-based immigration admits a wide array of ordinary people who should not receive special immigration rights. A cap of 25,000 would be more than adequate for a highly targeted subset of the current categories, but if such a reduction proved difficult for political reasons, a good starting point would be to cut this stream by at least half, from the 1999-2002 average of 129,000 per year. Humanitarian immigration has three subparts: refugee resettlement (bringing refugees from overseas), grants of asylum (reclassifying as a refugee someone who is already here illegally or on a temporary visa), and cancellation of removal (a grant of amnesty to an illegal alien whose deportation would cause "exceptional and extremely unusual hardship"). The solution here is to depoliticize the determination of who should qualify and establish an overall cap, like a family setting a target for the coming year's charitable giving.

In addition to these three main components of legal immigration, there are several other issues. The visa lottery, which gives 50,000 green cards a year to people from countries that send relatively few immigrants (mainly the Middle East and Africa), has no national-interest rationale and no real political support, and should be discontinued immediately. Also, temporary visas, technically known as "nonimmigrant" visas, need to be capped at much lower levels, especially those visas for foreign students, workers, and exchange visitors. These programs have become little more than side doors to permanent immigration. And guest-worker programs should never be instituted. Whether intended for tomato pickers or computer programmers, such schemes are inherently dishonest and have failed everywhere in human history: They inevitably lead to permanent settlement and actually promote more illegal immigration.

So much for immigration policy; what of the second component of the meta-policy--the "warmer welcome"? The place to start fixing immigrant policy is the immigration office. The service side of the former INS, now called U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, has an abysmal record of dealing with applicants. There are long lines, surly staff, and applications lost in bureaucratic black holes. This should sound familiar to most Americans, because that's exactly the way most state motor-vehicle departments used to operate. But even as DMVs have gotten better over the past decade, the immigration service has not. This is wrong; one expects immigration enforcement to present a stern face to illegal aliens, but why are legal immigrants subjected to such caprice and discourtesy, especially since they're paying for the privilege through fees?

The analogy is not frivolous. Just as the DMV is the one government agency that virtually all adult citizens are sure to have business with, the immigration service is, necessarily, the one agency that all immigrants have to deal with at one time or another. As a recent article in Governing magazine pointed out, DMVs have made significant strides in technology and customer service. But the immigration authorities have just begun inching in this direction. Only this spring did they begin to permit electronic filing, and only of two specific forms, which account for about 30 percent of the total number of applications received in a year. Electronic filing, however, doesn't mean electronic processing. Employees still have to print out the applications at their end and file them with millions of others, filling row after row after row of bookshelves in service centers around the nation.

The first step, then, is to streamline the bureaucratic process; the second is to help newcomers integrate into our society more swiftly. To begin with, all newcomers we admit for long-term residence should be admitted as Americans-in-training, and not as servants whose labor we rent at our pleasure and discard when convenient. That means no guest-worker programs and no winking at illegal immigration, both of which allow foreigners to live here, but only on a contingent basis, at our sufferance.

Proactive efforts at assimilation have been sorely lacking during this latest wave of immigration. Nonetheless, there is much that can be done. The U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform recommends that orientation materials be presented to new legal immigrants upon admission, almost like an instruction manual for life in America. This would include a welcoming statement on behalf of the American people, a brief overview of American history and civics, and "tools for settlement," including basic information on paying your taxes, U.S. holidays, the importance of credit reports and paying bills on time, how to use the postal and telephone systems, etc. We take much of this for granted, but for a newcomer, having all this in one place can be a godsend. Political psychologist Stanley Renshon, in his upcoming book The 50 Percent American, recommends that governments go further and work with businesses and civic groups to set up welcome centers to help immigrants adjust to the U.S.; expanded English-language instruction is also vital.

The final component of the warmer welcome is counterintuitive, but very powerful: Immigrants will be helped by reductions in future immigration. The first beneficiaries of lower levels of admissions would be the immigrants already here, since they would experience less competition for jobs. More difficult to quantify, but perhaps as important, is that lower levels of immigration would make less pressing the tough measures that have been proposed to deal with immigration-related problems--sweeping restrictions on access to welfare, for instance. With a smaller flow of new immigrants, and a gradually shrinking immigrant population, we will have much more flexibility.

Our current immigration mess is politically unsustainable. Too many lawmakers from both parties have decided that amnesty and effectively open borders are the only way to solve this problem, despite overwhelming public opposition. This disconnect between the public and the elite represents an enormous opportunity for a political figure championing a pro-immigrant/low-immigration approach to reform.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a Visiting Fellow at the Nixon Center.