The American Prospect, November, 2005
HEADLINE: Immigration Demystified;
BYLINE: BY FRANK SHARRY
"The test of
a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind
at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."
-- F. Scott Fitzgerald
PITY THE POOR LAWMAKER. Regardless of party or region, most members of Congress are now confronted with the demand to "do something" about illegal immigration. You have to feel for them. When the typical senator or congressional representative undertakes a typical swing through the district or state, it's the issue that just won't quit.
In town-hall meetings, the issue gets raised, as do tempers in the room. Inevitably, an exercised constituent grabs the mike, points his or her finger, and asks, "With terrorists trying to figure out how to get into the country to attack us, what are you doing to secure our borders?"
Then the local newspaper calls about a girl, a high-school valedictorian, on the verge of being deported because of rigid policies and bad legal advice. Her church and school are rallying to her defense. "Do you intend," the reporter asks, "to intervene with federal immigration authorities to keep this model student and her family together so they can pursue the American dream?"
During a meeting with local employers, a local business owner remarks offhandedly to our solon that his enterprise would not be able to survive, much less grow, if not for his immigrant workers. A sensitive subject is broached; the lid comes off; other employers get worked up. "We can't find anyone else to fill the positions we have opening up," the business owner says. "They show us a document when hired; who knows if it's legit? We suspect most are not, but we have to accept them or we can get accused of discrimination. Besides, it's the only way we can find the workers we need."
And on it goes. Church officials and ethnic leaders weigh in to ask that immigrants' work be rewarded and that families be reunited. A union member complains that subcontractors are undercutting wages and working conditions by hiring vulnerable immigrant workers too scared to speak up. A hospital official points to uncompensated care costs and the need for medical translators. An unemployed worker growls that immigrants are getting all the jobs. Local elected officials shake their heads about the emotions stirred by a controversy over whether the county should provide funding for a proposed day-labor site.
Yikes! Our typical lawmaker frets. Staffers! I need a briefing! Get somebody in here who knows something! Will you please explain to me what's going on?
"Thank you for inviting me in to speak with you and your staff. I hope you don't mind if I'm blunt."
OVER THE PAST TWO DECADES, successive Congresses and administrations have made a concerted effort to curtail illegal immigration at the Mexican border. It has failed miserably. According to a recent report by
We have an integrated labor market with
SO, WHAT IS THE PROBLEM?
The problem is we have no workable regulatory regime. In the absence of legal channels, workers have nowhere to go but into the clutches of a black market dominated by smugglers, fake-document merchants, and unscrupulous employers. Dan Griswold of the Cato Institute sums it up this way: "Demand for low-skilled labor continues to grow in the
He's right. A few years ago I visited Tixla, a sending community in the Mexican state of Guerrero. Many of its sons and daughters had left and migrated illegally to
That's when it hit me: Tixla, a dusty, rural town south of
BUT I THOUGHT WE HAD A GENEROUS IMMIGRATION SYSTEM
My point is that there is an enormous mismatch between labor-market realities and our immigration policy. Moreover, our family visa lines are so backlogged that it can take a decade for spouses to be reunited -- legally. Not surprisingly, many stop waiting and come illegally. Given all this, is it any wonder that our system is so broken, that our border-control efforts have failed, that 500,000 migrants settle without permission in the
UNCLE! WHAT THE HECK SHOULD WE DO?
We need a new perspective, one that transcends the myopia of the current either/or mind-set so popular with the polarized political class. We need a both/and approach that recognizes both the reality of an integrated labor market with Latin America and the legitimate demand for operational control of the borders in a post-September 11 world. We need to combine expanded enforcement strategies, expanded legal channels for those entering the
SO, WHERE ARE THE PARTIES AND THE LEADERS ON ALL THIS?
More so than most issues, immigration creates tensions within both political parties. However, the divisions are far more pronounced among Republicans. At times it seems the party is on the verge of a civil war, with culturally conservative populists and traditional law-and-order types on one side and pro-growth libertarians and pro-business conservatives on the other.
THE DEMOCRATS ALSO HAVE THEIR tensions. The majority sees immigrants as part of a 21st-century New Deal coalition. Yet cross pressures and ambivalence stem from fears that immigration is detrimental to low-income workers and that immigrants are being groomed as "honorary whites" so as to further marginalize struggling African Americans.
SO, IT'S TIME TO COME OUT FROM BEHIND MY DESK?
That's my recommendation [for politicians]. I will go so far as to predict that the immigration debate is about to be transformed. Lawmakers who describe the problem honestly and propose workable solutions will soon gain the upper hand on the enforcement-only crowd. The latter are about to be exposed as all hat and no cattle. Before long, their constant whining, rigid intransigence, and insistence on more of the same will be blamed for thwarting workable reform and perpetuating the illegality and insecurity of the current system.
Get out in front of this issue. Be for a solution that can work. Be for reforms that combine
Questions: According to Frank Sharry, what are the causes of our “immigration problem?” Does he have a specific, workable solution to the problem? Are there aspects of the immigration issue that he overlooks?