A Time For Hope: Immigration And National Security
Pick up the paper in the morning, and it hits you square in the face: Immigration is in trouble. As Americans continue to feel their way in a post-9/11 world, most Americans, it seems, worry about who is coming. The Urban Institute estimates that 8.5 million of the nation's 31 million foreign-born are illegally here. Right now, immigration policy has only one purpose: safeguard the homeland. The President this week announced his intention to create the Department of Homeland Security. This new department will incorporate the INS and represents the most far-reaching reorganization of the federal bureaucracy in 50 years. INS Commissioner Ziglar made the meaning plain for all INS employees in his public message of June 7th: " We are the guardians of the borders...This is a new and great day for the INS, one in which the mission of border security has taken on a whole new national prominence."
Immigration opponents have seized on the current national malaise as a way to overhaul the entire system, root and branch. At first glance, it would seem that now is their time. In one poll taken soon after September 11th, 2 out of 3 Americans were willing to shut the doors entirely and allow no immigration until the war against terror was won. In Congress, extremists have suddenly become respectable; the once-marginal Immigration Reform Caucus headed by the ever-excitable Tom Tancredo has quadrupled in membership. Respected legislators call for militarizing the border, barring all international students for six months, and putting the Bill of Rights into the deep freeze until we can afford to thaw it out again. The restrictionist Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform has spent $300,000 on TV ads in Western states since the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, hoping to sway the 2002 midterm elections. Pat Buchanan's newest jeremiad entitled "The Death of the West: How Dying Populations and Immigrant Invasions Imperil our Country and Civilization" became Amazon.com's hottest book right away and claimed a perch on the New York Times top 10 bestseller list. Even the academically respectable New York Review of Books provided a forum for sociologist Christopher Jencks to make the same Chicken Little argument, albeit in a more subdued and therefore acceptable tone. All this at a time when the INS has done precious little to inspire public confidence or political trust. Despite the fact that the most important advocate for a liberal immigration approach sleeps soundly in the White House, should another attack on America happen, the already high level of public concern would crest to flood stage and wash away any reservations now holding back the enactment of a sweepingly restrictionist agenda.
It would be easy, perhaps logical, to focus solely on the signs of winter all around us. The Justice Department initiative to fingerprint arriving Islamic visitors is but the latest example of anxiety trumping civil liberties. Yet, precisely at this time, those who support more immigration should keep their eyes on the prize. The reasons that sustain their argument are no less compelling now than they were before Al Qaida struck. First, the nativists simply ignore certain unpleasant but stubborn facts. While the calls for monitoring visitors already in the United States sound their alarm, the reality is that this would be a logistical nightmare- not even a revamped and re-energized Department of Homeland Security can collect or analyze information of a half billion entries and exits each year, mostly daily commuters from Canada and Mexico. As for keeping closer tabs on the undocumented, it would take years, if ever, to get an accurate count on where and who they are.
As America ages, and fewer workers have to support more retirees who want and have the political clout to get increasingly higher and more diverse benefits, the nation will have no choice but to accept, even recruit, large numbers of new workers in their prime years to pay the bills. Given the US birth rates, only immigration can make up the difference. Stephen Moore of the Cato Institute predicts that foreign-born workers will pour some $2 trillion into the Social Security Trust Fund over the next 70 years; given the absence of political will to raise payroll taxes or impose lower benefits on the Baby Boomers who are a formidable voting bloc, immigration is the only way for Social Security to remain solvent. Most of these immigrants have been educated somewhere else and come here to put it to good use. Another point to remind ourselves of is that, while much of the public debate has tended to spotlight our need for the highly skilled and educated, the American economy has an even more pressing need for the hard, dirty, physical labor that few Americans in this information age are willing or able to perform. Meatpackers, busboys, chambermaids, nursing home attendants, agricultural workers- all come from somewhere else and if they were not here, we would not be able to go on without them. Remember the squeak raised by onion growers in Georgia and meat packers in the midwest a few years ago when the INS made noises about really enforcing employer sanctions?
Even if the immigrant-bashers are right about the threat posed by high levels of migration, they have no remedy to stop it. In a remarkably insightful essay from the April 4th Wall Street Journal entitled "Too Many Immigrant?", Tamar Jacoby explains why the pro-immigration camp will prevail:
"Given the global economy, given the realities of politics and law enforcement in the United States, we are not going to stop - or significantly reduce - the flow of immigrant workers into the country any time soon. Businesses that rely on imported labor would not stomach it; as it is, they object vociferously whenever the INS tries to enforce the law. Nor are American citizens prepared to live with the kinds of draconian measures that would be needed to implement a significant cutback or time-out. Even in the wake of the attacks, there is little will to require that immigrants carry ID cards, let alone to erect the equivalent of a Berlin Wall along the Rio Grande..."
The number of people allowed into the US should rise or fall with the needs of the market. No longer should America tolerate immigration laws that irrationally penalize economic activity which supplies the labor we want and need. Rather than frustrating the desire of these diligent migrants willing to give us the benefit of their sweat, we should provide them with a means to enter the mainstream economy and give their children the ladder to climb that has always been extended throughout American history. Work, not family ties, should be the criteria for awarding most immigrant visas. If we are serious about national security, then 3/4 of our immigrant visas should not be based on family but the need for work- not just the high end of the value chain but the very real needs at the bottom of the labor market. Rather than preventing immigration, in the long run, harsher enforcement now will force Americans to think more directly about what this means to them and how much they really depend on it. Tough measures will produce not fewer immigrants but greater clarity about the measure of their contribution.
America should make it easy to come for those who do work that we need. This is what President Bush started to do before September 11th and what he should, and wants, to do still. Tamar Jacoby hit this nail squarely on its head when she said that the President "put the core idea plainly and got it exactly right" when he told Mexican President Vicente Fox that "If somebody is willing to offer a job others in America aren't willing to do, we ought to welcome that person to the country." Right on Mr President- who's making the coffee?
About The Author
Gary Endelman practices immigration law at BP America Inc. The opinions expressed in this column are purely personal and do not represent the views or beliefs of BP America Inc. in any way.
The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.