The electoral upset of Eric Cantor last week — partially blamed on his squishiness about immigration, along with stories of immigrant children streaming across the US-Mexican border — have seriously dimmed the prospects of legislating immigration reform anytime soon.
That's a shame, because normalizing the status of our millions of illegal immigrants, while clearly benefiting them, is also essential to the economic and social welfare of the country as a whole.
Let's start with what is not going to happen — no matter who is the House majority leader. Most illegal immigrants will not be leaving the country, either voluntarily through “self-deportation” as suggested by Mitt Romney, or involuntarily through actual deportation, notwithstanding the current administration's aggressive efforts in this direction.
So, we have only two options in dealing with these 11 million American residents: We can keep them in their current marginal status with all the negative effects that entails for them and their communities or acknowledge their ongoing presence among us and legalize it.
Both they and the country will be much better off if we pursue the latter course.
For the opponents of immigration reform, there appear to be three major concerns. Illegal immigrants: 1) broke the law, and thus shouldn't be rewarded with “amnesty”; 2) are harming the American economy by displacing American workers and burdening American taxpayers; and 3) are a threat to American culture and values.
Let me offer a rebuttal to each.
On law-breaking: The uncomfortable truth is that our illegal immigrants are not the only law breakers. We would never have had so many of them if it were not for the thousands of employers who broke the law by hiring them and were never penalized because federal authorities — quite intentionally — turned a blind eye to the issue until it became too politically visible to ignore. Perversely, employers have escaped not only legal penalties for their behavior but any blame from those most exercised about illegal immigration.
Regarding their impact on the economy: For starters, for many American industries — and most American consumers — all immigrants, including illegal ones, have been a huge economic asset; countless studies show they not only don't take jobs away from American workers, they eagerly tackle ones that the native-born shun. Contrary to the popular canards, they save American taxpayers money because the payroll, sales and other taxes they pay far exceed the cost of government services or payments they receive.
Nevertheless, the economic contribution of currently illegal immigrants could be vastly greater. If their status were legalized, the country would realize a human capital bonanza as millions of young illegal immigrants would have the motivation and means to go to college and millions of their parents would be free to further their education and training and become more productive in their careers.
Finally, regarding their impact on American culture and values: It is the assimilation of immigrants that preserves American culture and values, something we have been successful at for centuries.
In that spirit, we should be doing everything in our power to assimilate all of our current immigrants — legal and illegal alike. Yet, keeping our illegal immigrants in a state of perpetual economic insecurity and fear of deportation makes their assimilation well-nigh impossible and, incidentally, also casts a shadow over the assimilation of their legal relatives and friends.
(It is also why liberal efforts to separate immigrants are so misguided. Mexican and Latin American immigrants learn English and assimilate just like every other ethnic group in American history. Introducing bilingual public schools and other programs to keep people separate only slows the process and fosters resentment).
Of, course, any legislation to normalize the status of today's illegal immigrants must be matched by stringent measures to stem the flow of future illegal immigration.
The House is currently considering a Senate bill (Senate S744) along these lines; it would enable most current illegal immigrants to legalize their status but at the same time make it virtually impossible for new ones to gain a permanent foothold in the country.
Congress struck a similar compromise in 1986, with passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which combined amnesty for the 3 million immigrants then in the US with various border-control measures — including employer sanctions. But then the country completely failed to enforce the second half of this deal.
Happily, together with its provisions for legalization, S744 includes strong law-enforcement measures. Besides hardening our southern border, there are provisions for employer verification and computer data-matching — enforced by severe penalties for employer violators and deportation of foreign “visitors” who overstay their visas.
If congressional politicians in both parties can craft a tough and realistic “grand bargain” on these terms, they would be unleashing a human capital windfall not only for the affected immigrants but for all of American society.
This piece originally appeared in New York Post