The immigration reform debate is almost as hot as the Southwest desert sun, and has focused primarily on illegal immigration and how to address it. However, I fear a major point is being overlooked, one that offers a potential remedy to concerns on both sides: Immigration is not bad in and of itself. Ours is a nation of immigrants, and each wave of newcomers has more or less melted into the pot of gumbo we call America.
Reforming the legal system would address major immigration challenges more quickly and efficiently than any other action, including a “secure the border first” approach. Our nation was notably strong and vibrant when there were large influxes of immigrants; although I cannot say for certain, I suspect this is not coincidental. As noted, immigration broadly construed is a natural phenomenon with net positive effects for our country.
Illegal immigration reflects a dysfunctional legal immigration system. Securing the border is difficult because there are so many crossing illegally. Most simply want to work and pose no risk to this country. Even if they draw on public benefits at a high rate, free market economists -- no fans of the welfare state -- generally believe that any cost is offset by their contributions to the economy. Many have families to support. We should welcome these individuals. Immigrants add to the labor pool, creating new opportunities for entrepreneurs to create new firms and industries. Many are entrepreneurs in their own right; immigration is, after all, an entrepreneurial act, and very much at the heart of the American ingenuity ideal. Those who remain could help push the national birth rate above the replacement level.
Granted, the current regulatory environment makes entrepreneurship difficult, but that is a separate concern and does not fundamentally detract from the value of immigration to our society. Those choosing to venture across rugged deserts and treacherous rivers or cram themselves into smugglers’ vehicles are generally doing so for lack of alternatives. A guest worker program would allow the peaceful majority to contribute to our economy. A less byzantine naturalization process would likewise enrich our citizenry. Those already here illegally could pass a criminal background check, pay a fine, and enter the formal process after a waiting period.
This would leave the truly criminal element, those who disparage law and order. This small minority wants to sneak into our country regardless, and will continue to try. With fewer individuals to target, the border could be secured with far fewer resources than are currently devoted to the task. Reforming legal immigration would relieve the pressures of our illegal immigration problem while enriching the economy. With an eye toward openness, simple steps can allow the problem to essentially solve itself.