A Kinder, Gentler Immigration Policy

Forget Comprehensive Reform -- Let the States Compete

People stand at a wall separating Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, November 5, 2010.
People stand at a wall separating Mexico and the United States in Tijuana, November 5, 2010. (Eric Thayer / Courtesy Reuters)

Ever since Congress passed the Immigration Reform and Control Act, in 1986, attempts at a similar comprehensive reform of U.S. immigration policies have failed. Yet today, as the Republican Party smarts from its poor performance among Hispanic voters in 2012 and such influential Republicans as former Florida Governor Jeb Bush have come out in favor of a new approach, the day for comprehensive immigration reform may seem close at hand. President Barack Obama was so confident about its prospects that he asked for it in his State of the Union address in February 2013. Now, the U.S. Senate looks poised to offer illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship.

But a top-down legislative approach to immigration could nonetheless easily die in Congress, just as the last serious one did, in 2007. Indeed, the president’s domestic problems with health care and foreign problems with Syria have already cast a shadow over the prospects for reform.

Even if a bill did manage to pass, the sad fact is that it would work no better than the 1986 law did. That act was based on the assumption that punishments, such as sanctions on employers and heightened border security, and incentives, such as an increase in the number of legal immigrants allowed to enter the country and amnesty for illegal immigrants already there, could eliminate illegal immigration altogether. That assumption proved illusory: the offer of amnesty may have temporarily reduced the stock of illegal immigrants, but it was not enough to eliminate it. Nor did employer sanctions and border enforcement reduce the flow of new illegal immigrants. 

The challenges to eliminating illegal immigration are, if anything, greater today than they were in 1986. For one thing, in order to make today’s proposals politically feasible, their authors decided to offer illegal immigrants not immediate unconditional amnesty but a protracted process of legalization. Confronted with this approach, a large share of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the United States would likely choose to remain illegal rather than gamble on the distant promise of naturalization. 

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