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The Amnesty Trap and president Obama

April 20, 2009                                                                                            Win a green card Subscribe in a reader

When President Barack Obama turns his attention to immigration reform later this year, he will be pressured by advocacy groups and fellow Democrats to focus on a legalization program for the 12 million or so undocumented immigrants already living in the U.S. Obviously, the plight of this illegal population must be part of any policy discussion. But if Mr. Obama wants to be more successful than the previous administration when it tried to reform immigration, he should avoid getting bogged down in a debate over "amnesty."

Critics of comprehensive immigration reform, which ideally combines legalization with more visas and more enforcement measures, say that the last amnesty enacted -- the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986 -- didn't solve the illegal alien problem. This is true but misleading. After all, border enforcement enhancements over the past two decades haven't stanched the illegal flow, either, but that hasn't stopped immigration restrictionists from calling for still more security measures.

The reality is that the 1986 amnesty was never going to solve the problem, because it didn't address the root cause. Illegal immigration to the U.S. is primarily a function of too many foreigners chasing too few visas. Some 400,000 people enter the country illegally each year -- a direct consequence of the fact that our current policy is to make available only 5,000 visas annually for low-skilled workers. If policy makers want to reduce the number of illegal entries, the most sensible and humane course is to provide more legal ways for people to come.

This could be done by creating viable guest-worker programs or increasing green-card quotas or both. The means matter less than the end, which should be to give U.S. businesses legal access to foreign workers going forward. The 1986 amnesty legislation didn't do that, which is why it didn't solve the problem.

The three million illegal aliens who were brought into legal status under IRCA had already been absorbed by the U.S. labor market. The fundamental problem with the bill was that its architects ignored the future labor needs of U.S. employers. After the amnesty took effect, our economy continued to grow and attract more foreign workers. But since the legal channels available were not sufficiently expanded, migrants once again began coming illegally, which is how today's undocumented population grew to its current size. Another amnesty, by itself, will do no more to "solve" the problem in the long run than the first one did.

It's unfortunate that the "no amnesty" crowd has been able to suck up so much oxygen in this debate. Immigration hysterics on talk radio and cable news have used the term effectively to end conversations. And restrictionists in Congress have used it as a political slogan to block reform. But from a public-policy perspective, the fate of the 12 million illegals already here is largely a side issue, a problem that will solve itself over time if we get the other reforms right.

As in 1986, our economy and society have already absorbed most of these illegal workers. Many have married Americans, started families, bought homes, laid down roots. If their presence here is a problem, it is a self-correcting one. In time, they will grow old and pass on with the rest of us. The Obama administration would do better to focus less on whether to grant amnesty or to deport them and more on how to stop feeding their numbers going forward.

Unfortunately, the president will be pressed to do the opposite. The nation's two largest labor groups, the AFL-CIO and Change to Win, have already announced that they will oppose any new guest-worker initiatives and any significant expansion of temporary work programs already in place. Democrats and advocacy groups, who tend to see immigration as a humanitarian issue more than an economic one, will likely side with labor. But history suggests that such programs are effective in reducing illegal entries. Past experience shows that economic migrants have no desire to be here illegally. They will use the front door if it's available to them, which reduces pressure on the border and frees up homeland security resources to target drug dealers, gang members, potential terrorists, and other real threats.

Nearly seven decades ago, the U.S. faced labor shortages in agriculture stemming from World War II, and growers turned to the Roosevelt administration for help. The result was the Bracero program, which allowed hundreds of thousands of Mexican farm workers to enter the country legally as seasonal laborers. In place from 1942 to 1964, the program was jointly operated by the departments of Justice, State and Labor. As the program was expanded after World War II to meet the labor needs of a growing U.S. economy, illegal border crossings fell by 95%. A 1980 Congressional Research Service report concluded that, "without question," the program was "instrumental in ending the illegal alien problem of the mid-1940s and 1950s." Apparently, the law of supply and demand doesn't stop at the Rio Grande.

Beginning in 1960, the program was phased out after it faced opposition from labor unions. And since nothing comparable emerged to replace it, illegal entries began to rise again. The point isn't that we need to resurrect the Bracero program, or that guest-worker programs alone will stop illegal immigration from Mexico. But a Bracero-like program with the proper worker protections ought to be the template. And expanding legal immigration ought to be where the Obama administration channels its energies.

Granted, this will be a hard sell at a time when growing numbers of Americans are out of work. Even in good times, zero-sum thinking -- the notion that what is gained by some must be lost by others -- dominates discussions about immigrants and jobs. But the schooling and skills that the typical Mexican immigrant brings to the U.S. labor market differ markedly from the typical American's, which is why the two don't tend to compete with each other for employment. Labor economists like Richard Vedder have documented that, historically, higher levels of immigration to the U.S. are associated with lower levels of unemployment. Immigrants are catalysts for economic growth, not job-stealers.

There are plenty of ways and plenty of time to deal with the country's undocumented millions in a fair and humane manner. But we'd do better to focus first on not adding to their numbers. If the fate of this group instead drives the policy discussion, we're more likely to end up with the status quo or faux reforms like amnesty that dodge the real problem. By all means, Mr. Obama, lead the fight for immigration reform. But don't lead with your chin.

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