October 8, 2013
Over the next two decades, immigration will be a defining issue for America. Immigration strengthens our country and is especially important as native-born Americans have fewer children. How we reform the immigration system will determine our nation’s future.
Immigration, of course, also helps those who come here. America is a place of tremendous opportunity for those who seek to work hard and obey the law. People around the world have taken note. As a result America has been, and can continue to be, the most attractive destination for those who hope to improve not only their lives but the lives of their families.
Without doubt, our current system’s bureaucratic delays discourage legal immigration. So do restrictions on those most ready and able to contribute immediately to the economy and the government’s fiscal health -- those with in-demand skills and advanced education.
We must have immigration laws, of course. It’s vital that we know who is in the country and restrict entry for those who threaten national security. Embracing an amnesty for those here unlawfully -- something enacted in 1986 and proposed again in the Senate’s “comprehensive” approach -- would be unfair, costly and unworkable.
Unfair because of those already in line. Under our current system, in which we don’t really enforce the law, those who respect the law and wait to come are languishing in line. Those without such scruples are allowed to reside here and ultimately get legal status.
Costly because of the generous welfare state. Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman explained that a nation can’t have both open borders and a welfare state. The share of federal expenditures going to transfer payments (from Social Security, unemployment insurance and so on) has skyrocketed from 3 percent to 66 percent since 1935. The less-educated tend to have lower incomes and thus receive far more in benefits and services than they pay in taxes. The average illegal immigrant has a 10th-grade education. We can’t afford to worsen our already unsustainable entitlement and welfare programs.
Unworkable because amnesty sets us up for more of the same. When Congress and President Reagan granted amnesty in 1986 to some 3 million people, the package included promises to limit future illegal immigration. Those promises didn’t come to fruition, and today we have more than 10 million illegal immigrants.
In predicting the results of the “comprehensive” immigration bill passed by the Senate and sent on to the House, the Congressional Budget Office concluded the legislation would reduce illegal immigration by as little as one-third. That means millions would defy the law to enter the country or stay here -- and more than likely we’ll be debating another amnesty within a generation.
America should welcome immigrants from around the globe. We should welcome in particular those in high-demand occupations such as agriculture (where there indeed may be a labor shortage) and those with higher education (who likely will pay more in taxes than they receive in benefits and services).
Immigration is a defining issue, all right, but America can make reform a priority without amnesty.
Derrick Morgan is vice president for domestic and economic policy at The Heritage Foundation.
Originally appeared at Slate.com