• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Immigration Charade

America’s ongoing argument about immigration has followed a fairly consistent sequence for three decades. Each round begins with news reports about the fact that thousands of new immigrants are settling here illegally every week. These reports lead to charges that the United States has lost control of its borders and is being overrun by foreigners. Congress holds hearings. Employers say that they need foreign-born workers to fill jobs that Americans don’t want and that they cannot distinguish those with fake credentials from those with genuine ones. Legal immigrants push for higher family reunification quotas, hoping to hasten the day when their grown children, parents, or siblings will get a visa.

Congress then cobbles together a plan that includes tighter control of the border and a better system for identifying job applicants with fake credentials. In deference to pro-immigration groups it sometimes also includes more family reunification slots or an amnesty for illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. Occasionally Congress passes such legislation. But no matter what Congress does, the provisions that are supposed to prevent employers from hiring illegal immigrants remain unenforced, such immigrants continue to slip across the border, temporary visitors continue to overstay their visas, and the number of people living in the United States without permission from Washington continues to rise. So after a few years the same cycle begins again.

In 2006 the Senate, with the backing of President Bush and some leading Democrats and Republicans, voted 62–36 for an immigration bill that included provisions making it harder to cross the Mexican border and easier to identify firms that hire illegal immigrants, along with a new guest worker program allowing employers to recruit unskilled workers overseas for short stints of employment here. Its most controversial provision, which eventually killed it in the House, would have allowed people who had been in the United States illegally for five or more years to become legal residents if they paid both a $2,000 fine and back taxes on their past earnings. If they then worked in the United States for another six years they would have become eligible for permanent residence and eventually for citizenship. Because illegal immigrants were to be fined, supporters usually called the proposal a “path to citizenship” rather than an “amnesty.” Its opponents continued to call it an amnesty, since it still rewarded lawbreakers. In what follows I use the terms “amnesty” and “legalization” interchangeably, and refer throughout to “immigrants,” whether they intend to become citizens or not.

This year’s immigration bill was broadly similar to last year’s. Its most controversial feature was again an amnesty, which would have covered more people than last year’s amnesty but would also have imposed more onerous conditions on applicants.1 Sixteen senators who had voted for last year’s bill voted against this year’s version, and it was defeated 46–53. Of the ten Republicans who changed sides almost all were hard-core conservatives like Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. The five Democrats who changed sides were all traditional liberals, like Tom Harkin of Iowa and Evan Bayh of Indiana, but none came from a reliably Democratic state.

Few senators switched sides because they thought this year’s bill was worse than last year’s. Some Republicans switched partly because they no longer felt it was risky to oppose the President on legislation he badly wanted. But most senators switched primarily because conservative talk-show hosts and anti-immigrant groups such as the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and NumbersUSA had mobilized an unprecedented level of grass-roots opposition to any form of legalization. If opposition to legalization remains as intense and well-organized as it was this year, immigration reform may prove elusive for years to come.


When surveys ask how the government should deal with illegal immigrants, Americans’ answers depend on how the question is posed. Consider three examples from surveys conducted last spring.2 When the CBS News/New York Times poll asked “Should ILLEGAL immigrants be prosecuted and deported for being in the US illegally, or shouldn’t they?,” 69 percent of respondents favored deportation. When the same interviewers asked the same respondents what should happen to “illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States for at least two years” and offered respondents a specific alternative to deportation, only 33 percent said such people should be deported while 62 percent said “they should be given a chance to keep their jobs and eventually apply for legal status.” When Gallup offered four choices, only 14 percent of those queried said illegal immigrants should be required to leave the United States and not return, while a total of 78 percent thought illegal immigrants should be able to achieve citizenship, either after returning home or without doing so.

If support for legalizing illegal immigrants can run as high as 78 percent, it seems fair to conclude that intense opposition to such a step is confined to a small minority. But if support for deporting illegal immigrants can run as high as 69 percent when no alternative is offered, effective organizing can easily make the anti-amnesty vote look much larger.

One reason legalization arouses such intense opposition among “law and order” advocates is that they see little evidence that the federal government will ever make a serious effort to prevent further illegal immigration in the future. The 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) was supposed to be a compromise that linked amnesty to a crackdown on firms that hired illegal immigrants in the future. But once IRCA passed, the amnesty was implemented while the crackdown never occurred. As a result, the number of illegal immigrants kept growing. This history has sent out a worldwide message: if you are an unskilled worker who dreams of living in America, your best bet is to find a way into the United States, get a job, and wait for a new amnesty.

There are two basic strategies for limiting the number of illegal immigrants in the United States: policing the border and policing employers. Policing the border antagonizes people who have little political influence. Policing employers antagonizes people who have quite a lot of influence. Thus while immigration reform usually promises more policing of both the border and employers, it usually delivers bigger changes along the border than at worksites.

Between 1992 and 2003 the Border Patrol quadrupled the number of hours its agents spent watching the border.3 Along the Mexican border more fences were built, especially in urban areas, and major crossing points were more closely monitored. Patrols were also stepped up in rural areas, although the Mexican border is two thousand miles long, so surveillance is still far from complete. Tighter border control forced more illegal immigrants to cross in remote desert areas and hire a coyote to guide them. Despite the coyotes there is currently about one death for every thousand successful crossings.4

The Border Patrol now estimates that it catches about a third of the people who try to cross the Mexican Border illegally. It sends almost everyone it catches back to Mexico, where they are free to try again. Those who keep trying are thus almost certain to get across eventually. Building more fences and hiring more Border Patrol agents will probably increase the fraction of illegal immigrants who are caught, but modest increases are unlikely to have a big effect on the number of people who eventually make it across. In order to do that, the penalty for getting caught would have to be increased. Threat of imprisonment for six months, for example, might significantly reduce the number of people attempting to enter. But such a policy would also poison relations with Mexico, infuriate immigrant groups in the United States, offend many American voters, and cost a lot of money.

Policing the places where immigrants work can also reduce the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States, because it can reduce the number of jobs open to them and thus eliminate a principal reason for coming here. Nonetheless, the United States has never made much effort to reduce employers’ willingness to hire illegal immigrants. Only fifteen firms were fined more than $5,000 for employing unauthorized immigrants in 1990, and the number dropped to twelve in 1994, two in 1998, and zero in 2004. The number of hours spent on worksite inspections also fell by more than half between 1999 and 2003.5 After September 11, 2001, inspections also focused more on airports, nuclear power plants, and other likely terrorist targets. Illegal immigrants who avoided such employers were therefore even less likely than before to be arrested on the job.

Inspections at workplaces did pick up after 2004. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made five times as many worksite arrests in 2006 as in 2004. But even in 2006 ICE made fewer than five thousand worksite arrests, so an illegal worker still had less than one chance in a thousand of getting arrested at work.^6

Under current law employers have to check a job applicant’s documents, but they are not responsible for determining whether those documents are authentic. That seems reasonable. Yet as Peter Salins, a political scientist at the State University of New York, recently pointed out in The New York Times, the federal government could check the authenticity of workers’ documents soon after they are hired without even visiting worksites.7 Informed estimates suggest that roughly seven million people are working in the United States illegally.

About half these men and women are thought to hold regular jobs, while the rest work off the books. To get a regular job workers must give their employer a Social Security number. Employers send these numbers to the Social Security Administration (SSA), so that it can credit workers’ retirement accounts with both the worker’s and the employer’s contribution. When the SSA tries to credit an unauthorized worker’s account, the number usually shows up as either nonexistent or belonging to someone with another name.

In 2002, according to Salins, the SSA took the unprecedented step of sending 950,000 letters to employers identifying such “mismatches.” Employers and immigrant advocacy groups raised so many objections that the SSA cut back the program. As a result, “no-match” accounts now hold more than $586 billion. Some of these unmatched numbers can be traced to clerical errors, and some arise because people forget to tell the SSA that they have changed their name after a marriage or divorce. But the SSA believes that most unmatched numbers come from illegal immigrants using fake numbers to get work.

In August of this year the administration announced that employers who submit a significant number of “no-match” numbers will have to clear up the problem within ninety days and dismiss any worker who cannot comply. The administration also warned firms that ignoring the new rule could expose them to prosecution for hiring illegal immigrants. Large firms will get warning letters if more than 0.5 percent of their workers have Social Security numbers that the SSA cannot match. Smaller firms will get warnings if they have more than ten workers with unmatched numbers. The SSA expects to send warnings in the next few months to well over 100,000 such firms.

  1. 1

    This year’s proposal also altered the family reunification quotas by adding a point system that would have favored those with professional skills and fluency in English. Hispanic groups opposed this provision.

  2. 2

    See Table 1. All the survey results in this section plus many others can be found at www.pollingreport.com/immigration.htm.

  3. 3

    All the numbers in this paragraph are from Gordon Hanson, “Illegal Migration from Mexico to the United States,” Journal of Economic Literature Vol. 44, (December 2006), pp. 869–924.

  4. 4

    In the mid-1990s, deaths averaged about one hundred per year. Between 2000 and 2004 they averaged just over four hundred per year (see Hanson’s footnote 30). An estimated 300,000 new undocumented immigrants enter the United States every year. In addition, an unknown but sizable number leave and reenter, so there appear to be something like 400,000 successful illegal crossings a year.

  5. 5

    See Hanson, “Illegal Migration,” p. 910.

  6. 7

    Peter D. Salins, “Use Social Security to Seal the Border,” The New York Times, July 3, 2007. If the SSA and the ICE were to compare their files, the ICE could also identify workers with valid Social Security numbers but expired work permits.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print