The Palm Beach Post, May 7, 2006
"Massive deportation of the people here is unrealistic. It's just not going to work." President Bush said this last month, expressing what is the usual starting point for the debate over immigration. And
since we cannot, in fact, quickly deport all 12 million illegal aliens who live among us, the only option available is said to be legalization - i.e., amnesty, in one form or another. This is the choice the Senate appears to have made, though there is still much haggling over the specifics.
But this forced choice is a false choice. There is a third way that avoids both amnesty and mass deportations, and it's the only strategy that can actually work, in any case.
This third way might be called "attrition through enforcement" - consistent, comprehensive enforcement of the immigration law (something we never have attempted) designed to reduce the number of new illegal arrivals and persuade a large share of illegals already here to give up and deport themselves. The goal would be a steady decline in the total illegal population, shrinking illegal immigration from a crisis to a manageable nuisance. This is the strategy underlying the enforcement bill passed in December by the House of Representatives.
Why are the two other approaches unworkable? If the 7 million illegals in the workforce (the rest do not work) disappeared overnight, there would obviously be significant disruptions - making that point was apparently the goal of last week's May Day demonstrations. It's not that the economy ever "needed" these workers but, rather, that the economy has accommodated itself to their presence and going cold turkey would be painful.
The practical effects of the mass-roundup option are irrelevant, however, since the federal government simply doesn't have the capacity to deport so many millions of people. Last year, we deported only about 42,000 aliens from inside the United States (as opposed to those caught at the Mexican border and dumped back across), and that's actually down from the previous year. Even a tripling or quadrupling of deportations, necessary as that is, can't be the whole solution.
Legalization is just as impractical. Whether it's done openly, as with the 1986 amnesty, or disguised as a guest-worker program, as in the various Senate proposals, a large legalization program is guaranteed to fail. Let us put aside other questions, such as the immorality of rewarding lawbreakers while the law-abiding remain tangled in red tape, and look only at the practical questions: Who would run the program and enforce its requirements?
The Department of Homeland Security is choking on immigration, with a backlog of 4 million applications, and the agency's inability to stop or even detect fraud was sharply criticized in a recent report from the Government Accountability Office. It is absurd to suggest that millions of additional applicants could be successfully screened and vetted and tracked by a broken agency that is incapable of meeting even its current responsibilities.
We've tried unrealistic mandates like this before and the results were disastrous. The closest parallel is the 1986 legalization program; about 3 million illegal aliens applied for amnesty, and 90 percent were approved. Hundreds of thousands of fraudulent applications were approved, many presenting fake proof of employment - sometimes as flimsy as a handwritten note on a scrap of paper - and offering ludicrous stories such as, "I've picked watermelons from trees."
One beneficiary of such fraud was Egyptian cab driver Mahmud Abouhalima, who was able to travel to Afghanistan for terrorist training only because of the legal status conferred on him by the
amnesty; he then used that training to help lead the first World Trade Center bombing.
Support for either mass expulsion or a guest-worker amnesty is based on a kind of magical thinking, a utopianism that imagines we will be able to resolve this long-brewing policy problem with a single masterstroke.
In contrast, attrition through enforcement requires no magic wand - just consistent, comprehensive application of the immigration law with the tools available, enabling us to back out of a problem that
took many years to develop. Such a strategy would have two parts: conventional enforcement at the border and the interior to apprehend and remove illegals, plus what might be called a "firewall" policy, which seeks to prevent illegals from being able to embed themselves in our society. That would involve denying them access to jobs, identification, housing, and in general making it as difficult as possible for an illegal immigrant to live a normal life here, so as to persuade a large number of them to give up and self-deport.
The reason this can work is that there's a lot of churn in the illegal population. According to a 2003 report from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, about 400,000 people are subtracted from
the illegal population each year, through deportation, voluntary return, etc. The problem is that the inflow of new illegal aliens swamps this outflow, resulting in an annual increase of the pool of illegals of half a million each year.
Increasing the outflow is realistic because there are plenty of relatively recent arrivals among the illegal population who can be induced to leave; a Pew Hispanic Center report recently found that 40 percent of the illegal population has been here less than five years, and fully two-thirds less than 10 years.
And it actually works. To pick just one example, after 9/11, immigration authorities began to enforce some immigration laws against Middle Eastern illegal aliens (and only Middle Eastern
illegals). As a consequence, the largest such group, Pakistanis, deported themselves in droves, with a majority of their number leaving the country of their own accord.
Applying the attrition approach in a comprehensive fashion also would be cost-effective. Using the government's own cost estimates, the Center for Immigration Studies recently projected that the illegal population could be reduced by nearly half in five years with a total additional investment of $2 billion.
Congress faces a clear choice: a realistic strategy of attrition through enforcement or the fairy tale of legalization. The shape of the final bill (if any) will determine whether we begin to reduce the problem of illegal immigration, or continue to exacerbate it.
Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.