Next week New Haven, Connecticut plans on issuing an ID card that will be available to illegal immigrants. Besides providing a pass to municipal services like libraries and parks, the card will work as a debit card for parking meters and be valid identification to present to police and banks.
What kind of crazy idea is that? Why would a city want to make life easier for immigration scofflaws? One of the justifications for the card is that because it's difficult for illegal immigrants to open bank accounts, they're targeted by muggers who know they carry a lot of cash. One might object that the city is discriminating against one class of criminals on behalf of another one.
The truth is, though, that New Haven's politicians are hardly the only ones pushing policies that encouraging migrants to violate immigration laws. There are more than 30 "sanctuary cities" where it is illegal for police to ask about immigration status. Nine states currently allow illegal immigrants to receive driver's licenses, although that will change when the federal "Real ID" act goes into effect in 2008. (In two other states, illegal immigrants can get driving certificates that can't be used as ID for most purposes; such certificates are legal under Real ID.)
Then, of course, there's the dead-for-the-moment campaign for some sort of amnesty or semi-amnesty, which, besides insulting immigrants who have played by the rules, would reassure the next generation of border-jumpers that they have little to fear. Even guest worker programs can encourage illegal immigration; agriculture workers on H-2A visas, who are allowed to stay in the country only seasonally, often bring along family members who illegally stay year-round.
It isn't that it's impossible to stop the flow of illegal immigration. According to a 2005 report on the Minuteman Project, volunteers on the Arizona border proved that auxiliary personnel simply watching the border are highly effective at reducing the flow of illegal migrants.
It would take tens of thousands of such personnel to plug all the leaks in the border, but that's not so daunting a number when you consider that they can be trained in three days, rather than the two years that are needed to train the Border Patrol officers they'd be assisting. A handful of jurisdictions are now allowing local police officers to assist in enforcing immigration laws -- a job that's traditionally been left to a relatively small number of federal agents -- and there's no reason why the IRS can't make it a priority for their auditors to look for employers who dodge tax liabilities by keeping illegal workers off the books. (Enforcement is at least as important in the interior as it is on the border -- a large percentage of illegal immigrants have overstayed their visas rather than snuck through the border.)
The problem is that beefed up enforcement by itself, to the extent that it's effective, threatens to hamstring an economy with a demonstrably growing demand for labor. From 2002 to 2006, a period of consistently low unemployment, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that 1.8 million new permanent immigrants entered the U.S. annually -- about a half million of them illegally. As cases of crops that have gone unpicked following crack-downs on illegal farm workers vividly illustrate, America has a shortage of legal labor. Raising immigration quotas by forty to fifty percent would make enforcement a much easier job; as legal immigrants fill the jobs currently being filled by their illegal counterparts, many of the latter will simply leave on their own.
Among the many idiocies of the immigration bill that failed in the Senate last month was that it barely contemplated the number of immigrants the country needs or wants. The bill left the actual quotas basically untouched.
Perhaps, because it's somewhat counterintuitive to argue that we must respond to out-of-control immigration by welcoming more immigrants, the reason that few politicians straightforwardly advocate increased immigration quotas is that they're afraid such a policy won't fly politically. But the outrage over immigration is driven not just by the presence of immigrants per se, but by the widespread lawlessness that the current system has wrought. It's rather shortsighted, even cowardly, to facilitate that lawlessness while shying away from real reform.
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