Coping with Illegal Immigrants

The problem mounts, the experts are in near agreement as to how to resolve it, and yet another President gives it high priority. However, despite all of the above, the United States may fail to enact a new national immigration policy in the near future. The seriousness and care with which Congress is considering the issue are cause for encouragement, but President Reagan is in the process of finding out, as President Carter did before him, that there is little political capital to be made in this policy area.

The political logic is depressing. Whenever any expert group does its homework on this issue, it is led to the conclusion that the United States should tighten controls on illegal immigration and limit the net inflow of people. However, such action is extremely hard to take. The short-run beneficiaries (low-income groups) have little political clout and our political system generally discounts the long run. The interests opposed to such a policy are conspicuous and powerful. Tightening controls and reducing the flow of immigrants will raise costs for employers, raise prices for consumers (particularly for services), and may well worsen our relationships with those countries which the immigrants seek to leave.

An additional deterrent to political action is that the normal political coalitions are scrambled on this issue. Some conservatives say keep them out, we don't need any more people to create social problems and soak up scarce social welfare dollars. Other conservatives say let them in, to discipline the domestic labor force and provide workers for the stoop labor that Americans simply won't do. Some liberals say let them in, we have a duty to share our riches with poorer people from the Western Hemisphere (if not the world). Others say keep them out, our first duty is to maintain social welfare for poor people already here. As a recent editorial put it, "Immigration policy has little appeal for most politicians. While they are not unaware of the disastrous long-run consequences of doing nothing, they see nothing but grief in taking action now."1

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