Use Enforcement to Ease Situation

By Steven A. Camarota on October 23, 2005

The Arizona Republic, October 23, 2005

That America has an illegal-immigration problem is not in question. There are an estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal aliens in the country, a number estimated to grow by more than 400,000 a year. To deal with the problem some advocate a mass amnesty coupled with increased legal immigration, while others want mass deportations. But there is a third way: attrition through enforcement.

Mass roundups of millions is neither politically likely or practical. Legalization mocks legal immigrants and will spur more illegal immigration. Besides, we've already tried it. In the 1980s, 2.7 million illegal aliens were legalized. Legal immigration has doubled since the 1980s, but we have three times as many illegals.

Legalization also does not solve most of the problems associated with illegal immigration. The poorest and least educated American workers would still face job competition from millions of legalized illegal aliens. Letting illegals stay only makes sense if you think the poor are overpaid.

Moreover, illegal aliens create significant costs for taxpayers mainly because they are unskilled, not because they are illegal. At least 60 percent lack a high school diploma. Such people pay relatively little in taxes regardless of legal status because they earn so little in the modern American economy. My research indicates that the net fiscal drain (taxes minus costs) would triple if we legalized illegals. Unskilled illegal aliens are costly, but unskilled legal immigrants cost even more because they can more easily access social programs.

A strategy of attrition through enforcement, on the other hand, is both realistic and avoids the problems of illegal immigration by making illegals go home or self-deport. A March 2005 Immigration and Naturalization Service report estimates that 165,000 illegals go home each year, 50,000 are deported, and 25,000 die. But many more than that come in.

If America becomes less hospitable to illegals, many more will simply decide to go home. To do this, we should enforce the law barring illegals from holding jobs by using the national databases that already exist to ensure that each new hire is legally entitled to work here.

In 2004, only three employers were fined for hiring illegals. The Internal Revenue Service must also stop accepting Social Security numbers that it knows are bogus. We also need to make a much greater effort to deny illegal aliens things like driver's licenses, bank accounts, loans, in-state college tuition, etc.

Local law enforcement can also play a role. When an illegal is encountered in the normal course of police work, the immigration service should pick that person up and deport him. More agents and fencing are clearly needed at the border as well. At present, less than 4 percent of our southern border is fenced, and there are more New York City transit cops than Border Patrol agents on duty at any one time.

Attrition through enforcement is really the only option if we want to solve our illegal immigration problem. Implementing such a policy will save taxpayers money, help American workers at the bottom of the labor markets and restore the rule of law.

Steven A. Camarota is Director of Research at the Center for Immigration Studies.