By Edward Alden
The Council on Foreign Relations
The Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy last week released a bipartisan report with recommendations for reforming what everyone agrees is a broken and dysfunctional immigration system. The Task Force, which was convened by the Council on Foreign Relations and led by former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former White House chief of staff Mack McLarty, argued that the United States is doing serious damage to its economy, to its security, to its diplomacy, and to its standing in the world by its inability to manage immigration in a sensible and rational fashion.
Immigration policy is a serious issue that deserves serious consideration, and the report has generally received the reception that members of our group had hoped for — it is being seen as a thoughtful, good faith effort to find a way forward on an immensely difficult and contentious set of problems.
The membership was a diverse one. It included Robert Bonner, the former Customs and Border Protection chief who oversaw many of the improvements in border security we have seen since 9/11; Fran Townsend, the former White House homeland security advisor under President Bush; and Richard Land, one of the country’s most influential evangelical leaders. It also included Raul Yzaguirre, for three decades the national president of La Raza, and Eliseo Medina of the SEIU, a union leader who has helped unite a previously divided labor movement on the need for immigration reform. For this group to come together around a common analysis and set of recommendations took vision and political courage.
Yet some commentators have been quick to pin the “amnesty” label on one of the report’s recommendations, which is that Congress should devise an earned path to legalization for many of the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants thought to be living in the country currently. Whatever its flaws, the report deserves far more serious consideration than that.
I will set aside our many recommendations on the need for opening up new opportunities to ensure that the U.S. attracts the best and brightest immigrants, creating a sensible temporary worker program, improving employment-based enforcement, and ensuring that our immigration laws reflect our values as a nation. The Task Force understood when we wrote the report that the issue of what to do with illegal immigrants already in the country would inevitably dominate any consideration of immigration reform.
The Task Force did not embrace earned legalization with great enthusiasm, with the report noting that it was “unsatisfactory from the rule-of-law perspective.” Instead, we see it as a choice forced upon the country by too many years of policies that allowed the problem of illegal immigration to grow and fester.
We reached this conclusion for four reasons:
- First, the security dangers of allowing a large, unauthorized population to remain in the United States are substantial. Effective homeland security requires that the government know to the greatest extent possible who is living in this country, which is impossible in the current situation.
- Second, a large illegal underclass creates unfair competition for American workers, allowing unscrupulous employers to drive down wages and working conditions.
- Third, the United States has long been a country of second chances, and the alternative of attempting simply to drive illegal immigrants out of the country is one we found morally unacceptable. It means breaking up families and wrenching people away from communities where they have lived for many years, even decades. A recent Pew survey found that most illegal immigrants live in mixed-status families with U.S. citizen relatives, showing how deeply ingrained much of this population has become in American society.
- Fourth, there is simply no plausibility to the “attrition through enforcement” argument, the notion that if we simply make life difficult enough these people will leave of their own accord. The current severe recession, the worst since the Great Depression, has been a far better test of that theory than anyone could have wished for. The job market, which is the magnet that brings illegal migrants to the United States, has collapsed. New inflows of illegal immigrants have fallen to the lowest levels since the 1970s. Add in tougher enforcement, particularly with the increase in state and local police involvement, and it is evident that life is pretty miserable now for many illegal immigrants. Yet the most thorough studies to date indicate that surprisingly few are returning home. Whatever the difficulties, the United States has become their home, and they are determined to ride the storm out here with the rest of us.
One final argument, which will probably have no impact on those who find the “amnesty” label so convenient but bears repeating nonetheless: earned legalization is not amnesty.
As Richard Land, a Task Force member and the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention has put it succinctly: “Amnesty is what President Carter gave to those who avoided the draft, with no fines, no penalties, no community service, no anything.” In contrast, earned legalization is a high hurdle, requiring substantial fines, evidence of stable employment, progress in learning English, as well as criminal and other background checks. Many will not clear the bar, and even for those who do the road to permanent residence and citizenship would be a long and taxing one.
There are many legitimate and important questions to be asked about how best to do immigration reform in a way that does not repeat the mistakes of the past. But to label any proposal that envisions less than a complete removal of the current illegal immigrant population as “amnesty” offers no reasonable way forward. For people who are serious about fixing our immigration problems, it is time to stop the name calling and get on more constructive solutions.
Edward Alden is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and the project director for the Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy.