Just for the heck of it, I thought I'd try to figure out where I stand on immigration reform in general.
(1) Guest Worker programs. No no no no! Here I agree with Greg Anrig (and for conservatives, take his three principles to be not 'principles that distinguish progressives from movement conservatives', but 'principles we should all aspire to'):
"Here are three basic traits that distinguish progressives from movement conservatives: our moral values derive from a fundamental belief that basic human rights should be respected for all individuals; if a public policy has failed over and over in the past, we learn from the experience and don’t repeat the same mistake; and we consider the economic well-being of average workers to be far more important than the wish list of corporate lobbyists. The guest worker provisions of the Senate immigration deal clearly violate all three of those principles. Without creating a process by which the proposed 400,000 temporary guest workers per year could ultimately gain citizenship, and without adding protections for low-income native-born citizens, the idea is as mindlessly immoral and ignorant of history as saying we should “double Guantanamo.”
The bracero program in the United States from 1942-64 led to wretched exploitation of guest workers who had negligible legal protections against abuses. And it did nothing to stop illegal immigration. And, as the economist Paul Heise told the Christian Science Monitor, since World War II, “The Swiss tried [guest worker programs] with the Italians and Spanish, the Germans tried it with the Turks, and the French with the Algerians. Everywhere it has been a disaster for both the welfare of the workers and the moral character of the country.”
It may be true that the current political situation could be the best climate for many years to reach a deal that enables undocumented workers to come out of the shadows. But the guest worker proposal violates fundamental principles that define what it means to be a liberal, and what it should mean to be a Democrat. The issue isn’t the quantity of guest workers or some other programmatic detail that could be tweaked at the margins. Importing cheap labor for temporary use to be returned when no longer needed is dehumanizing and will only exacerbate existing problems related to illegal immigration when the guest workers behave rationally and find a way to stay here. If we want to try to defuse the economic pressures that lead migrants to risk their lives to come to the United States, the only morally acceptable, and at least potentially effective, approach would be to give them a chance to ultimately remain in the United States legally."
Yep. I can't imagine why we would want to repeat an experiment that has failed everywhere it's been tried, including here. The argument for this is what the Washington Post in its wisdom describes as the "annual flow of 400,000 to 600,000 low-skilled workers needed to satisfy the demand for labor." When I read things like this, I ask myself, why are these workers "needed"? Have we run out of unemployed people? Sadly, no. Are none of those people "low-skilled"? Again: no. Besides, I had always imagined that we had a market economy, in which, when there is a shortage of something, the price rises until someone steps in to fill that shortage. If people can't find enough workers, I think they must just not be paying enough.
Sometimes this argument continues: oh, but people who employ farmworkers couldn't hire people who are here legally, at the wages they'd have to offer to attract such people, without going out of business! I have never seen the force of this argument. I could probably come up with all sorts of business plans that would be successful if only I could pay people as little as I wanted. So what? If I can't actually get people to work for me at a price that would allow my business plan to succeed, that shows that I don't have a successful business plan, not that the government should distort its immigration policy to prevent me from failing.
I honestly don't see how this argument is any different from saying: oh, I can't compete unless I am allowed to steal the things I plan to sell, so the government has an obligation to repeal the laws against theft! To which the appropriate answer is: well, boo hoo hoo. Go find a line of work you can actually succeed at.
(2) General considerations. I take it as a given that, other things equal, any laws we have ought to be either enforced or rescinded, and that this is as true in the case of immigration as anywhere else. It's bad in general when laws are ignored; in this case, in particular, we can't have anything like a straightforward debate on what levels of immigration we should have so long as our own laws and policies don't govern what happens. Lax enforcement is no substitute for deliberate policy.
(I take it to be a completely open question what levels of immigration we should want. For large chunks of our history, we not only didn't have any restraints on immigration, we kidnapped people who didn't want to come here and brought them against their will. My ancestors on my Dad's side didn't need a visa or a green card, and the union seems to have survived. I just think it's always better, other things equal, to make these decisions deliberately.)
However, the 'other things equal' part is important. Enforcing laws costs money, and is often intrusive, and there will often be some level of enforcement that just isn't worth it. Take a (hopefully uncontroversial) case: burglary. Suppose that we have managed, through excellent policing, to bring the level of burglary way down. In fact, suppose we've been so successful that there are now only ten burglaries per year in the US. There has to be something we could do to bring that number to zero.
We might, for instance, employ a police officer for every house, and keep every home and every workplace under round-the-clock surveillance so that no burglary could occur undetected. Maybe we could make everyone wear radio ankle bracelets, so that we could tell when someone entered anyone's home or workplace, notify that person, and ask if the intruder was supposed to be there. Whatever. The point is: just because this would (let's assume) bring the number of burglaries to zero does not make it a good idea. Moreover, people who don't support it are not, in virtue of that fact, "for" lawbreaking or burglary.
There are very legitimate differences of opinion about the point at which enforcing the immigration laws ceases to be worth it, and most of them have nothing to do with being pro- or anti- enforcement of laws generally.
(3) Employer sanctions. I think that the solution to the problem of illegal immigration has to involve doing something serious about the demand for illegal workers. If people could not get jobs by coming here illegally, they would not come, and that would be vastly better for all concerned than having them come and be deported. (Note: again, this is, to me, a completely separate question from whether we should allow people to come legally.) This is the same logic that leads me to think that the solution to the problem of illegal drug smuggling is reduction in demand for drugs, in the absence of which I assume that smugglers will always find a way.
So: enforcement of serious sanctions against employers is critical if we're going to solve this problem. But, as I've said before, I think it's unfair to impose these sanctions against employers unless we give them some reliable means of telling who is legal and who is not. If we don't give them a way to do this, then we basically have two options, both of which are bad.
(a) We just ask employers to make some gesture in the general direction of checking (e.g., asking to see someone's possibly fake documentation without making any effort to tell whether or not it's genuine), in which case we will not be enforcing serious sanctions against them.
(b) We require them to do serious and prolonged detective work whenever they want to hire someone, and penalize them when they fail. This is an unfair burden to put on businesses, and would probably lead to discrimination against people of ethnic groups who strike people as likely to include a lot of illegal immigrants. (I mean, if there were real, serious sanctions for hiring illegal workers, and it was hard to tell who was illegal and who was not, I suppose that someone like me, who is WASP/Dutch/Swedish, would look a lot safer than a legal worker of Mexican descent.)
These are bad options. Being a liberal, I think that there are certain things that are better done by the government than by private enterprise, and keeping track of citizens, holders of work permits, etc., is one of them. So I think that if we want to solve this problem, the government needs to provide businesses with some reliable way of telling who is legal and who is not. Then, we should enfore very serious sanctions against people who hire illegal workers. Period.
(4) Border Security. I'm in favor of border security, other things equal. I think it's not going to work in the absence of employer sanctions: if people have a real incentive to do something, it's hard to keep them from doing it, especially when 'keeping them from doing it' involves policing a very long border.
I also find the emphasis on fences bizarre. I'm sure they have their place, maybe in urban areas, but do we really want to build and watch a fence along the entire border? Also, weren't the people who go on about this ever mischievous children? I was, and I have scaled a large number of fences that people wanted me not to scale in my time. To this day, there's a part of me that regards a fence as an invitation to trouble, though I try to keep this part under wraps when I'm walking past the construction sites on my way to class.
I'm fine with increasing the number of people policing the border, but, again, I think this effort is doomed to failure as long as jobs for illegal immigrants are plentiful. In conjunction with serious employer sanctions, though, I think it might be good. ("Might" because I think that serious employer sanctions would make the number of people who are trying to cross illegally drop significantly, and in that case the resources we currently have might be enough.)
(5) Immigration policy more generally. I am not wedded to the idea of giving preference for citizenship to the adult siblings of citizens. I definitely think that it would be a good idea to make sure that there is some provision for Mexicans and Central Americans who are not related to citizens to become legal immigrants, on condition that they not have been caught trying to enter illegally. At the moment, Mexicans and Central Americans who are not related to citizens have very little chance of getting into the country legally, and very little to lose if they try to get in and are caught. I would change this.
I also see no earthly reason why we should tolerate huge backlogs in the
IRS USCIS (the ex-INS; thanks, Gary.) I am fine with asking people to wait a while before becoming citizens because we think, for some reason, that that's a good idea. But I see no reason at all why people should wait to have their status resolved one way or the other, or to be united with their families, because we can't be bothered to clear up an administrative backlog. This is just wrong.
I leave the question how our asylum policy could be improved to people who know more about it, like Katherine.
(6) What to do about people who are already here illegally. One more reason why I think that getting serious about employer sanctions is the way to go is that, as I said earlier, I think that the way to sharply reduce the number of people who try to get into this country illegally is to reduce their incentives to do so. Given serious employer sanctions that are seriously enforced, it would be hard to get a job as an illegal worker, and so coming here illegally would be a lot less attractive. And that would really seriously alter the debate about what to do about the people who are here illegally now.
I take it that the basic problem is as follows. On the one hand, we should not provide incentives to break the law. If people see that coming into this country is a way to become a citizen, then they will be encouraged to come into this country illegally. Note that this consideration has nothing to do with what we think of the particular people who are already here; it's about the signal that letting them become citizens sends to others. I take it that that's truly a bad signal to send: we should not encourage people to break the law, other things equal.
On the other hand, when you consider these particular people, in the absence of any incentive effects, there's not a lot to be said for deporting the ones who have not committed any crime other than crossing illegally. Crossing illegally, unlike e.g. murder or rape, is something that a lot of people do out of real economic desperation. They don't just want a plasma TV; they want their children to have food. In their shoes, I might do the same thing.
When I ask myself: do I want murderers running around loose? If they weren't citizens, would I favor deporting them? the answer is: yes. Murderers are generally bad people, and I'd rather they not come into my country. But when I ask myself: suppose someone came into this country illegally: does that crime, alone, make them a person I would rather not have here? the answer is: no, not if a lot of the people who did so really were seriously poor and were taking the only opportunity they had to make a better life for themselves and their families. In fact, I think that being willing to risk a lot to try to help yourself and your family is generally an admirable trait, and except for the lawbreaking part, I'd be inclined to think that people who came here for that reason were showing an admirable kind of initiative, desire to improve their lives, etc.
That makes me think that if it weren't for the signal we'd be sending to people who are not yet in this country, I'd have no trouble whatsoever with some sort of road to citizenship. -- I mean, suppose that God somehow plucked the United States and all its present residents and moved us all to Twin Earth, which had no other people living there, leaving everyone else back home on Original Earth. In that case, whatever we did about the undocumented workers in our midst couldn't possibly have any effects on future immigration, since there would be no future immigrants. In that case, I'd be fine with a path to citizenship; in fact, I'd think that most of the ones under discussion are much too long.
Here's the point, though: if we had serious sanctions against employers who employ illegal workers, and those sanctions were seriously enforced, then that would go a long way towards eliminating the appeal of coming to this country in the hopes of some future amnesty that might or might not ever materialize. Why? Because if you came here for that reason, you'd have to survive without a job. Moreover, if many fewer people were coming here illegally, enforcement would be a lot easier, so the chances that you'd last long enough to get a hypothetical future amnesty would shrink.
And that, in turn, means: while offering people a path to citizenship would send a signal we don't want to send, serious employer sanctions would send another signal, which might more than offset the first. Which is to say: employer sanctions would move us as close as we can get to my imaginary Twin Earth example without actually being taken off the planet by the hand of God. As in that example, the pro-illegal immigration signal would be a lot less important than the question: do we want the people who are actually here -- the specific individual workers and families -- to stay, or do we want them to go? At that point, I think the case for letting them stay, probably subject to some set of requirements, gets a lot stronger.
(7) Paying for it all. Any solution to this problem will cost significant sums of money. My proposed solution would, I think, cost less than many, since it relies heavily on changing incentives rather than actually apprehending all the people who cross the border (and, given a serious change in incentives, apprehension gets a lot easier.) Still, I am proposing creating a readily accessible database of citizens and people with work permits, etc.; creating some reliable way of telling whether some specific person is in that database or not; increasing the number of people who process immigration cases (to reduce the backlog), etc.
There is no way to solve this problem on the cheap. If we continue to insist that every candidate for office pledge never to increase our taxes, no matter for what, then we will end up with yet another band-aid. You get what you pay for (unless Bush is in office, in which case you don't even get that.)