On April 30, the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, Subcommittee
on Immigration, Border Security, and Citizenship, held a hearing to
examine the question: "Comprehensive Immigration Reform in 2009:
Can We Do It and How?"
While the consensus of the panel was that comprehensive
immigration reform should be part of Congress's legislative agenda
in the near future, one only need to look at previous failed
attempts at a comprehensive solution to determine that this
approach will not work. All too often, comprehensive reform has
become a metaphor for amnesty and has done little except encourage
more individuals to come to the U.S. illegally.
Effective change does not require Congress to pass a massive,
comprehensive immigration bill. Rather, Congress needs to fix
immigration in a more incremental manner that is designed to:
- Reduce the incentives for illegal immigration; and
- Strengthen employers' ability to hire the employees they need
to help the economy grow without jeopardizing the nation's
security, sovereignty, and social fabric.
This approach would include:
- Safeguarding the southern border,
- Promoting economic development and good governance in Latin
- Enhancing legal worker programs,
- Reforming U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS),
- Enforcing immigration and workplace laws.
Legalization Not the Answer
The idea that legalization is the best solution to America's
immigration problem is being suggested with increasing frequency.
In fact, the Senate hearing's witnesses, including Alan Greenspan,
seemed suggest the idea that legalization would somehow be an
economic stimulus. But this policy of amnesty first and security
and enforcement later is a recipe for disaster that would only hurt
the nation. Legalization is not the answer for the following
It Is Not an Economic Stimulus. Despite the claims that
legalization would be an economic stimulus, the reality is that
such a decision would be very costly to the United States. While it
is true that immigrants generally add to the economy, there has
been a flood of low-skill, low-educated migrants, most of whom have
come to the country illegally and many of whom bring with them
similarly educated and skilled family members. These migrants use
public services, health care facilities, and schools while paying
few of the taxes that support these public sector activities--at a
very high price tag.
Overall, households headed by immigrants without a high school
diploma (or low-skill immigrant households) received an average of
$30,160 per household in direct benefits, means-tested benefits,
education, and population-based services in FY 2004. This cost
would far exceed the economic benefits of legalization.
It Erodes Rule of Law. Rewarding those who came into the
U.S. illegally would encourage others to engage in same
It Threatens Immigrant Safety. Amnesty would encourage
more people to cross the border illegally in hopes of staying in
the United States without repercussion. Crossing the southern
border, however, is highly dangerous--there are many hazards,
including border smugglers who often rape and murder those they
pretend to help. The U.S. should not provide an incentive for more
people to take this dangerous journey.
An Alternative Approach to Enforcing
Legalization of the individuals illegally in the United States
is not the right approach to solving America's immigration problem.
Those who support legalization have attempted to characterize
dealing with illegal immigration as a choice between permanent
legalization and the forced deportation of each and every illegal
immigrant in the United States, but there are other options.
Congress needs to move beyond the idea of a comprehensive
approach to immigration reform and instead adopt a segmented
strategy that addresses each element of the problem individually. A
new strategy should do the following:
Keep the Border Secure. The Bush Administration started
the process of deploying new agents and more technologies while
erecting physical barriers. This was an important first step. Now
the Obama Administration should continue these measures in a way
that is in line with the operational needs of the Department of
Homeland Security. Also, these efforts need to be integrated with
state and local governments, as well as private citizens, by
supporting Border Enforcement Security Taskforces and State Defense
Promote Economic Development and Good Governance in Latin
America. Tackling the illegal immigration problem starts with
reducing the pressure on citizens to come to the U.S. illegally.
This pressure is primarily the result of a lack of employment
opportunities in Latin America. Aiding Latin American countries in
their economic development will greatly reduce the pressure on
their citizens to come to the U.S. illegally. Furthermore, in
Mexico it is vital that the U.S. help the Mexican government combat
the drug cartels that are trying to destabilize that nation.
Enhance Legal Worker Programs. The United States has
always been a destination for immigrants and requires a robust and
efficient visa system. Faulty visa programs have encouraged many
employers and immigrants to resort to illegal immigration. The U.S.
needs to provide legal avenues that meet the needs of employers and
immigrants and provide a better alternative than illegal
Reform USCIS. As of now, USCIS could not handle a surge
of legal immigrants, in part because it has a faulty budget model
based on application fees. For USCIS to be responsive to
immigration reform, its revenue structure should be changed to give
the USCIS more flexibility. This can be accomplished by investing
in workplace enforcement and by establishing a national trust fund
to pay for programs for which USCIS cannot charge fees--for
example, amnesty applications and naturalization of military
Enforce Immigration and Workplace Laws. Homeland Security
Secretary Napolitano must ensure that internal enforcement efforts
continue. This includes workplace raids that help to decrease
incentives for both illegal immigrants and employers, as well as
287(g) programs, which help state and local law enforcement enforce
Time for a Different Approach
Repackaging amnesty as an economic stimulus does not dilute its
terrible effects. And legalizing immigrants here illegally would
not provide an economic boost. In fact, an amnesty would be costly
and would encourage more individuals to cross over the border
illegally--which is a threat to their safety--without solving the
It is time for Congress to take a different approach to
immigration reform, one that upholds the rule of law, respects the
needs of the economy, and provides a legal means by which to come
to the U.S.
McNeill is Policy Analyst for Homeland Security in the Douglas
and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of
the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International
Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.