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 (Once arrested, those with neither proof of American citizenship nor a valid visa are supposed to be deported, but it is not clear how often this happens.)

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.

The SSA does not have legal authority to fine or prosecute firms that employ undocumented immigrants. Nor is it entirely clear that current law allows the SSA to hand over suspicious cases to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. If the SSA does pass information to ICE, its decision to do so is likely to be challenged in court. Congress could, of course, explicitly authorize the SSA to cooperate with ICE. But the threat of prosecution has provoked strong protests from firms that hire a lot of immigrants, so Congress might just duck the issue.

If the administration successfully implements its “no-match” program, demand for illegal workers will diminish, but it will not disappear. The SSA takes a long time to identify employers who submit a lot of unmatched Social Security numbers. That means workers with fake credentials can find a job, hold it until the SSA catches up with their employer, and then move on to a new job. A better long-term solution would be for the SSA to replace today’s Social Security card with a tamper-proof card that included both a photo and information on whether the person was a citizen, a permanent resident authorized to work here, or a temporary resident with permission to work here until some specified date. The employer could then determine the legal status of all job applicants before making an offer. Moreover, courts could assume that employers who hired undocumented workers knew what they were doing. Civil libertarians have traditionally opposed such an identification system, but 86 percent of Americans now support the idea.8

Even a secure Social Security card will not have much impact on the informal labor market, where people work off the books and are paid in cash. Policing this part of the economy is difficult but not impossible. ICE could, for example, monitor street corners where men gather in search of day labor to see whether everyone looking for work had a valid Social Security card. But ICE cannot be expected to look for every nanny who has overstayed her visa or check the credentials of every man behind a power mower in an American suburb. In any event, it makes more sense to start by trying to keep most illegal immigrants out of the formal economy. If that effort succeeds, it may then make sense to begin policing some parts of the informal economy as well. But if addressing the problem of illegal immigrants in the formal economy succeeded, the country might also conclude that aggressive efforts to find all those in the informal economy were not worth the cost.


Those who oppose enforcing laws against hiring illegal immigrants often argue that the American economy needs these workers, because they fill jobs Americans do not want. One problem with this argument is that in many parts of the United States native-born workers still do the jobs—on farms or in restaurants, for example—that immigrants do in states like California, Texas, Florida, and New York. Furthermore, while some industries in areas with a lot of immigrants do rely heavily on their labor, what most employers seem to want is an ample supply of foreign-born workers, not illegal immigrants per se.9

Because business interests exert so much political influence in the United States, no serious crackdown on employing undocumented workers is likely to last unless it is accompanied by a large-scale legalization program that allows employers to retain most of the undocumented workers already on their payroll. As we learned after 1986, the crucial question about legalization is what happens next. If employers are allowed to keep hiring new illegal immigrants, legalizing those who are currently undocumented will not change much in the long run.

The obvious alternative is to combine a crackdown on hiring illegal immigrants with an increase in the number of unskilled immigrants given legal permission to work here. Whether that would be a good idea is far from clear. There are two basic arguments for such a policy. First, unskilled and semi-skilled service occupations in fields like home health care, hotel work, fast food shops, landscaping, construction, and moving freight or retail stock are growing faster than the labor force as a whole.

Second, many employers now prefer to fill such jobs with immigrants because they usually accept lower wages. When employers say immigrants “take jobs Americans don’t want,” they really mean that immigrants “take jobs Americans don’t want at the wages I want to pay.” Employers’ ideas about what they can afford to pay depend, however, on whether they think they can pass the cost along to their customers. That depends on what their competitors are charging for the same service. If every lawn service has to raise wages, they will all have to charge their customers a little more. The impact of such a change is likely to be comparable to the impact of raising the minimum wage. A few customers will decide to mow their own lawns, but most will just pay up.

Employers also say that foreign-born workers tend to work harder, be more reliable, and complain less than the natives they can hire at the same wage. This is not surprising. Unskilled immigrants have seldom finished secondary school, but they have overcome all kinds of obstacles both to get here and to stay here. Native-born high school dropouts often lack that kind of ambition and perseverance, and surveys invariably show that they have more than their share of problems with alcohol, drugs, impulsiveness, unreliability, and crime. No employer wants to deal with such problems if there is a cheaper alternative. But allowing employers to hire immigrants almost guarantees that unskilled natives will have more trouble finding steady work. Between 2000 and 2005 the unemployment rate among eighteen- to sixty-four-year-old natives without high school diplomas rose from 10 to 14 percent; among their foreign-born counterparts it fell from 9 to 7 percent.10

This pattern suggests that what is good for employers may not be so good for the country. If we do not want poorly educated natives to become an idle underclass, they must be able to find steady jobs. Such jobs cannot replace all the benefits of further education, but they are probably our best hope for keeping families together and keeping people out of trouble. There is no simple formula for balancing employers’ desire for immigrant workers against society’s need to keep its unskilled natives working. Nor is there any simple way to balance the economic desperation of immigrants against the economic claims of poor natives, especially if the natives are African-Americans or second-generation immigrants. But we cannot hope to strike the right balance—or any balance—if we continue to let millions of unskilled immigrants come here and work illegally, because we cannot regulate their numbers. The only way to strike a balance is to crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, offer visas to more unskilled foreign-born workers, and set the number of visas with an eye on how that number will affect job opportunities for unskilled natives.


Patrick Buchanan is a conservative populist who worked in the White House under both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and ran unsuccessfully for the Republican presidential nomination in 1992 and 1996. He hates George W. Bush, foreign entanglements, economists, businessmen who think only about money, elites who pay no attention to “middle America,” and large-scale immigration. In State of Emergency: The Third World Invasion and Conquest of America he voices all the anxieties a sensible person might feel about the current immigration system, along with a lot of other worries that seem apocalyptic about the future, nostalgic about the past, or misinformed about the present. Much of what he says also illustrates the ease with which a good writer can get carried away by his own rhetoric.

Buchanan thinks Americans were once bound together by shared history (Lincoln’s “mystic chords of memory”), common ancestry (“consanguinity”), and pride in being American. Now he sees us becoming a tangle of warring ethnic factions held together by little more than a shared passion for shopping. If current trends continue, he predicts that by 2050:

African Americans and Hispanics will be hugely overrepresented among our poor and working classes. Our affluent and professional classes will be dominated by Asians and whites. Our country will look like Latin America, with its chasm between rich and poor. Politically, this will produce a lunge toward statism. Demands for new social spending for health, education, and welfare…and for quotas, racial and ethnic set-asides, affirmative action, and proportional representation for all minorities will be irresistible. We will never escape the prison of race.

Buchanan sees little hope of reversing this trend, not because today’s predominantly white electorate favors it but because both Republican and Democratic strategists are desperate to win the allegiance of future Hispanic voters, who they think could give one party or the other a lock on national power for decades to come. As a result, he claims that both parties are trying to appear immigrant-friendly.

Buchanan thinks that Republicans who pursue this strategy are deluding themselves. Hispanics, he says, gave Mondale 54 percent of their votes when he was running against Reagan in 1984. Since then they have given every Democratic presidential candidate 60 to 75 percent of their votes.11 They have also transformed California from a Republican to a Democratic state. In Buchanan’s view Republicans would fare better in the long run if they wrote off the Hispanic vote and tried to restrict Hispanic immigration. The fact that thirty-seven out of forty-nine Republican senators voted against the immigration bill last June suggests that elected Republicans may now be ready to follow Buchanan’s advice.

Buchanan is also worried about long-term political developments in the Southwest. Mexicans are unlike other immigrants, he argues, because many of them believe they have an historic claim on American lands. A Zogby poll conducted in 2002 asked Mexicans (in Mexico), “Do you agree or disagree that the territory of the United States Southwest belongs to Mexico?” In response, 58 percent agreed that the Southwest belonged to Mexico, 28 percent disagreed, and 14 percent were unsure. Buchanan argues that many Mexicans now hope for a cultural and political reconquista of the American Southwest. Non-Hispanic whites are already a minority in California, Texas, and New Mexico. Unless immigration is curtailed, the day will come when most southwestern voters are of Mexican descent.

The linguistic future of the Southwest depends mainly on whether second- and third-generation Mexican-Americans become fluent in Spanish. Children of Mexican descent are more likely to speak Spanish at home than most other immigrant groups, because their parents are less educated and less likely to work in settings where fluent English is essential. If Spanish were to be required at school, and if the prospect of a Mexican-American majority makes Southern California, Arizona, and Texas less and less attractive to Anglos, Spanish could conceivably become the lingua franca of the region. Is such an outcome likely?

Except in a few rural areas, nothing like this has ever happened before in the United States. It is true that no alternative to English has ever been as readily available to as much of the population as Spanish is likely to be in places like Los Angeles, San Diego, San Antonio, and Houston. Even so, I would still bet against Spanish becoming the primary language of second-and third-generation immigrants. And even if it does, few Mexican-Americans in Texas or California would want their state returned to Mexico unless Mexico were a lot richer and a lot better governed than it is now.

While the future of the Southwest is an open question, Buchanan has worries about the present that seem harder to justify. He claims, for example, that illegal immigrants cause far more than their share of crime in the United States. As evidence he reports that 30 percent of federal prison inmates are aliens (noncitizens), compared to only 12 percent of the general population. That comparison sounds alarming, but both figures are deceptive. To begin with, state prisons have seven times as many inmates as federal prisons, and noncitizens are less than 5 percent of the state prison population. If we pool federal and state prisoners, only 6 to 7 percent of them are noncitizens.12

Nor do aliens make up 12 percent of the relevant comparison group. Buchanan’s 12 percent includes immigrants who have become citizens, whereas prison counts include only those who are not citizens. His 12 percent figure also includes children and the elderly, who are hardly ever imprisoned. If we focus on eighteen-to-fifty-four-year-olds, 10.7 percent of them are noncitizens. Since only 6 to 7 percent of federal and state prisoners are noncitizens, prison statistics would, if taken at face value, suggest that noncitizens are considerably more law-abiding than citizens of the same age.13

Buchanan concedes that most immigrants come to the United States to better themselves and their children. But from his point of view that is precisely the problem. In a section entitled “An Economy Is Not a Country” he writes:

In Catholic doctrine, death occurs when the soul departs the body, after which the body begins to decompose. So it is with nations.

Patriotism is the soul of a nation. It is what keeps a nation alive. When patriotism dies, when a nation loses the love and loyalty of its people, the nation dies and begins to decompose.

Patriotism is not…that spirit of nationalism that must denigrate or dominate other nations. It is a passionate attachment to one’s own country—its land, its people, its past, its heroes, literature, language, traditions, culture, and customs.

Buchanan is surely right that affection and loyalty are the glue that holds nations together, and that the hidden hand of capitalism is no substitute. But “passionate attachment” to a country’s heroes, literature, language, and traditions is a demanding standard for newly arrived immigrants. Not many of those who came to America would have passed this test at any time in our history. A better question is how many children and grandchildren of immigrants had such sentiments in the past, and how many are likely to have them in the future. Buchanan is pessimistic about the future because “nearly 90 percent of all immigrants now come from continents and countries whose peoples have never been assimilated fully into any Western country.” But elsewhere in his book he goes out of his way to argue that Americans of African descent have been assimilated. He does not discuss Asians, but most of them seem to be assimilating at least as well as the descendants of Europeans. The descendants of Mexicans who came to the United States before 1965 were less likely than Europeans to become American citizens, but since they were treated as second-class citizens and were often rounded up and sent back to Mexico, that is hardly surprising.14

Recent research also suggests that more assimilation has been taking place than Buchanan may realize. Roughly a third of second-generation Asian and Hispanic immigrants marry a non-Asian or non-Hispanic, and the figure is well over half for the third generation.15 Children of unskilled immigrants also move up the economic ladder at about the same rate as children of unskilled native-born workers, closing roughly half the gap between their parents and the average American.16

Second-generation immigrants have plenty of problems, but these problems are a consequence of assimilation, not its absence. Second-generation immigrants have sex at an earlier age than their parents did; they also drink more, and are more likely to join violent gangs.17 All these changes make the children of immigrants more like the children of natives, which is one reason why many immigrants resist the idea of across-the-board assimilation. Buchanan recognizes this fact, observing:

The parents may work hard, attend church, and still carry with them the conservative and Catholic values with which they were raised in the Latin America and Mexico of yesterday. But these good people are not changing our culture. Our polluted culture is capturing and changing their children.

I can see why Buchanan might view contemporary American culture as polluted, but that makes it hard to understand why he is so worried about immigrants not assimilating. What really seems to worry him is that immigrants are not making America more like the country he thinks it once was. That is asking a lot.


The federal government’s policy of opposing illegal immigration while refusing to enforce laws against hiring illegal immigrants has had huge costs. It has exacerbated popular distrust of the federal government (as indeed it should have). It has also increased hostility to foreigners, especially Mexicans, who are all suspected of having entered the country illegally. To many Americans Washington’s failure to control illegal immigration, like its failure to deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is just another example of how out of touch, duplicitous, and incompetent federal officials really are. In the short run such views are good for Republicans who want to discredit government and cut federal spending. In the long run, however, extreme distrust of government also precludes sensible policies that even conservatives should favor.

The collapse of this year’s bipartisan push for immigration reform suggests that ending the charade will be extremely hard. This should not be the case. Many employers would accept more stringent penalties for hiring illegal immigrants in the future if that were the only way to legalize their current workers, and many immigrant groups would do the same. On the other side, many conservative activists might accept legalization of today’s illegal immigrants if that were the only way to ensure a crackdown on hiring illegal immigrants in the future. In principle, therefore, a deal should be possible.

But this deal turns out to have a fatal flaw. Legalization can be implemented within a few years, while penalties for hiring illegal immigrants have to be enforced indefinitely. That means employers get what they want right away, while opponents of illegal immigration have to wait. In view of the federal government’s miserable record on enforcement, no sensible conservative—indeed no sensible person of any political persuasion—would now accept mere promises. The conservative mantra is therefore “enforcement first.” For many employers that sounds like the road to bankruptcy. They want “legalization first.” As long as each side insists on getting what it wants before the other side does, no deal is possible and illegal immigration, with all its unhappy consequences, will persist.

August 28, 2007

This Issue

September 27, 2007