The fact is that the overwhelming majority of illegal immigrants come to the United States to work. If you accept that, then you really shouldn’t have much of a problem with illegal immigration. I don’t agree with that position, but it’s a fair one to take — Tom Bethell lays out the case for it very well in his “Freedom of Immigration Acts” article in the September issue of The American Spectator (subscribe).
To a large extent, it’s a question of numbers. Many of the problems associated with illegal immigration — bad incentives for employers, the strain on social services in heavily affected communities, educational challenges, diminished opportunities for the most economically vulnerable Americans, worsening income inequality, slower assimlation — are a product of the illegal population’s size, and would be mitigated if that population was smaller. Unfortunately, these problems are reaching a point where they are more significant than the revenue lost due to turnstile jumpers.
Overly border-centric enforcement strategies tend to fail for three reasons. First, because Giuliani was right to point out a decade ago that the border can’t be secured 100 percent. Second, because this approach ignores the 25 to 40 percent of illegals who overstayed visas. Third, because tighter borders make illegals less likely to go home, paradoxically increasing the size of the illegal population.
Ultimately, if you don’t address the reason illegal immigrants come to the U.S. or the social networks to which they belong, you are going to have significant illegal immigration. Giuliani is right to concentrate deportations on criminals but wrong in my view to ignore carefully targeted interior enforcement.
There are dueling studies about the economic benefits of illegal immigration — the consensus among labor economists seems to be that the benefits are small and accrue mainly to the workers themselves and their employers, but some very well credentialed economists dissent — yet an attrition strategy can be pursued gradually, taking into account the economic facts on the ground as they evolve. It doesn’t have to be a blunderbuss “round ’em up” approach. But as an American, I do care about my fellow countrymen of all races and backgrounds who flip burgers for a living. And as a taxpayer, I have to ask what negative externalities may result from non-enforcement as well as excessive enforcement.
If you take Giuliani at his word, it seems that he only grasps a small part of this issue — that we need to have a better idea of who is here and that some illegals will commit crimes. If you are more cynical, you might wonder if he is trying to build up his credibility for another try at a “comprehensive” immigration bill.