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

In the pages that follow, I confine my analysis to the constellation of issues surrounding illegal immigration. Despite the recent furors surrounding Cuban refugees, Haitian entrants and "boat people," it is illegal immigration, not the unpredictable flow of refugees, which constitutes the bulk of our problem. In addition, the values and judgments involved in dealing with refugee policy are different from those involved in dealing with illegal immigration; it has often been difficult to agree on which characteristics should be used to define a refugee, but once a category of people is given refugee status it is clear that they should be treated differently from illegal immigrants.

Moreover, this article will not consider the issue of levels of legal immigration or the allocation of number ceilings to particular countries and regions of origin-with one exception. Mexico is the source of over one-half of the illegal or undocumented persons who arrive in the United States yearly and confront U.S. immigration policy. The ceiling figure for legal immigration from Mexico is thus a crucial element in any approach to the problem of illegal immigration. And by the same token we shall take a hard look at the Reagan Administration's proposal for a limited "pilot" program to admit legal temporary guest workers, most of whom would almost surely come from Mexico.2


There are two reasons why we now define immigration as an extremely critical national issue. First, there is the pressing problem of gaining control of illegal immigration. The United States is currently experiencing a large illegal or undocumented influx. As is the case with all clandestine processes, it is almost impossible to obtain accurate data on such migration, but most observers would agree that the annual net inflow of illegals is around 500,000 a year and that this inflow has increased tenfold over the last 15 years. This constitutes a flagrant violation of national sovereignty, as control over entry by noncitizens is one of the two or three universal attributes of nation-states. Apart from the fact that the United States seems to have less control over its borders than any other major industrial country, this illegal inflow is creating a large pool of persons (estimates are in the four-million to six-million range) who live and work in our society but are not protected by our laws. This obviously makes these people a target of exploitation and intimidation.

Second, there is increasing concern over the rate of growth and the sheer size of the overall inflow. Net immigration (legal and illegal, immigrants and refugees) has increased to more than one million persons per year, which means that the United States accepts more immigrants and refugees than the rest of the world together. This rate of inflow is near the highest level ever experienced in American history (reminiscent of the years before the First World War) and is bound to have an impact on the society and on the economy. Can we successfully integrate the newcomers or will we find, particularly in times of rising unemployment, that xenophobic impulses and racial and ethnic tensions become more pronounced as indigenous workers feel increasingly threatened?

Perhaps the most sobering factor in these calculations is that unless a restrictive policy is put into place, the rate of inflow in the future is likely to accelerate rather than stabilize or diminish, generating even greater domestic pressures. It might not matter if Los Angeles is 75 percent Hispanic in the year 2000 (as opposed to 40 percent now), but if an increased inflow of immigrants helps push up our unemployment rate to 12 percent or 15 percent, and undermines working conditions across the board, race/ethnicity may become a scapegoat, and Hispanics could become the victims of economic grievances. The riots in Britain in July 1981 stemmed from a similar constellation of factors.

The pressures that will make for an accelerating inflow (in the absence of tighter controls) are fairly obvious and stem from the inability of many Third World countries to absorb their rapidly expanding populations into productive, decently paid occupations. The world's population was about four billion in 1975 and will reach approximately 6.4 billion by the year 2000. Most of this population growth is in developing countries which already have serious unemployment and underemployment problems. These nations will need 600-700 million new jobs between 1980 and 2000 just to keep unemployment from rising. To put this in perspective, this is more jobs than existed in all of the industrialized countries combined in 1980. These pressures will not be significantly lessened by declining birth rates, which tend to accompany the industrialization of Third World nations, since most of the people who will enter the work force during the next two decades have already been born.

As half of our illegal immigrants are Mexican nationals, U.S. policy may well be more affected by the specifics of the Mexican situation than by the general characteristics of the Third World. Despite its high growth rates and oil wealth, Mexico, too, reflects the problems described above. The current Mexican population of over 70 million is projected to increase by at least two-thirds by the year 2000, and the total number of jobs that would have to be created in Mexico during the next 20 years in order to accommodate all new entrants to the labor force and absorb the present arrears of unemployed and underemployed into productive full-time employment is more than 30 million. Even if Mexico were to sustain a growth rate of 6.6 percent per year over the next 20 years (a record of sustained economic growth that is virtually unprecedented among developing countries), only 20 million new jobs would be created before the end of the century. This leaves a sizeable deficit! And no matter how many new jobs are created in Mexico, the huge real wage differential between the United States and Mexico (currently ten to one in many cases) will continue to drive workers to seek to cross the border.

The issues, then, seem clear enough. Everyone who has looked at the immigration question is agreed: we have a massive illegality problem, a massive numbers problem, and a set of external pressures which guarantees that, left to themselves, both problems are sure to grow worse.


Over the course of the last few years there have been numerous commission reports, congressional hearings and academic writings which detail the trends and implications described above. These efforts have served to underline the seriousness of the problem and have prompted moves to reform the entire system of immigration controls. In August 1977 the Carter Administration announced a set of reform proposals which included a program of amnesty for those undocumented aliens already employed in the United States, and a work authorization system for screening out newly arrived illegals that depended on conventional documents. Policy disagreements within the Administration, weak executive backing, and some active Senate opposition (most notably from Senator James Eastland of Mississippi, who was Chairman of the Judiciary Committee at the time) all combined to undermine this policy initiative. As a result the only concrete congressional response was to establish a study panel, the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy (SCIRP), chaired in its decisive period by Father Theodore Hesburgh of Notre Dame University. The report of the Select Commission was released in March 1981, just after President Reagan assumed office.

Reagan brought to the presidency a variety of strong incentives to develop a new national immigration policy. There were the expectations set up by the impending release of the Select Commission's report; there were his campaign promises, particularly to his supporters in the Southwest, pledging to admit large numbers of Mexicans on temporary work visas; and there was his great desire to forge a new and constructive "special" relationship with Mexico.

In order to make some rapid progress in this area, President Reagan set up in March of this year an 11-member Presidential Task Force on Immigration and Refugee Policy which included several Cabinet members and was chaired by Attorney General William French Smith. The work of the Task Force failed to progress as quickly or as smoothly as at first planned. Although the group's recommendations were originally meant to be presented to Reagan on May 1, this did not actually happen until July 1, and it was not until the end of the month that the President announced the official policy package that was to solve the immigration question. This slippage was symptomatic of problems on the substantive front. The advisory group came up against deep internal divisions and ultimately did not recommend a set of policies that was acceptable to the full Cabinet and to Reagan.

The central problem was that the more the Task Force educated itself on the immigration problem, the more difficult it became to recommend the expanded legal immigration preferred by the Administration (to please its constituents and to pave the way for a closer relationship with Mexico). In the end, the Task Force recommended a set of measures that were designed to tighten controls on illegal immigration and severely limit the net inflow of people. It is not surprising, therefore, that in its July proposals the Administration failed to take the advice of its own Task Force. In the official package, some key control measures were side-stepped or rendered unworkable, and it seems clear that even if this package were to get through Congress, it would not solve the illegality problem or the numbers problem described above.

The proposed package consists of five general elements:

1) The Task Force (following the logic of SCIRP) saw two mutually supportive short-run ways to reduce the inflow of undocumented workers: to better police U.S. borders and shorelines, and to remove the principal motive for entry by making it illegal for employers to hire workers who are not authorized to work in the United States. The Administration has adopted these principles. In the July 31 policy package, it proposed an additional $75 million for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) to tighten up the borders and to detain illegals, and recommended the introduction of legislation prohibiting employers of four or more employees from knowingly hiring illegal aliens. Civil fines of $500 to $1,000 would be assessed for each illegal alien hired, and injunctions would be sought against employers who follow a pattern or practice of hiring illegal aliens.

2) In order to make it possible for employers to comply with these new immigration laws, the Presidential Task Force advocated the use of a counterfeit-resistant Social Security card. SCIRP also saw the logic for some kind of secure worker identification system but was divided as to what system should be used. A majority on the commission voted for using a mix of currently available documents, while a minority advocated a work authorization system of identification developed by the U.S. Department of Labor (of which more below). The Administration has now come out against any new worker identification system, and has advocated in its place the use of existing documents to serve as proof of eligibility to work (either documentation issued by the INS, such as a permanent resident alien card, or any two of the following: a birth certificate, a driver's license, a Social Security card, or a registration certificate issued by the Selective Service system).

3) Both the Select Commission and the Presidential Task Force recommended a conditional amnesty for some substantial portion of those illegal immigrants already in the country, in order to avoid the enormous social and political costs associated with mass deportations. For example, the Presidential Task Force advocated that illegal immigrants who entered the United States before January 1, 1980, and have been in continuous residence for five years, be permitted to remain as permanent resident aliens. The Reagan Administration has now accepted the principle of such amnesty, but has considerably stiffened the conditions under which illegal immigrants can legitimize their status. The policy announced on July 31 would permit illegal aliens who entered the United States before January 1, 1980 to apply for the new status of "renewable-term temporary resident," which could be turned into permanent resident status after ten years. The conditions attached to this new status would be stringent. Temporary residents would have to renew their visas every three years; would be required to pay income and Social Security taxes but would not have access to welfare, federally assisted housing, food stamps or unemployment insurance; would need to learn English before they were eligible for permanent resident status; and would not be allowed to bring in their families.

4) Both the Select Commission and the Presidential Task Force agreed that there should be a small increase in the number of legal immigrants allowed into the United States from Mexico. However, they recommended different routes to this end. SCIRP assumed that a reasonably conditioned system of amnesty, together with extended family reunification rights for temporary resident aliens, would automatically increase the legal flow of immigrants into the United States from Mexico, continuing the "safety valve" into the short-run future. The Task Force, on the other hand, recommended increasing the legal ceilings for both Mexico and Canada from 20,000 immigrants to 40,000 immigrants a year on the ground that we have a "unique relationship with our neighbors." Under this proposal, any visas not used by Canada would go to Mexico. Since Canada does not use even its current allocation of visas, the net effect would be to make 60-70,000 additional visas available to Mexicans, thus maintaining the "safety valve" on a much reduced scale. The Reagan package incorporated this latter proposal.

5) On the issue of guest worker programs, SCIRP and the Presidential Task Force diverged. After looking long and hard at the experience of the United States with the Bracero program, and at the experience of European countries with their guest worker programs, SCIRP voted down, by a large majority, any new guest worker program. The conclusion was that if, after illegal immigration is brought under better control, more workers are needed in the United States, it would be better to admit them as immigrants with full legal rights than as guest workers with inferior status. The Presidential Task Force, on the other hand, recommended a "pilot" guest worker program with Mexico of 50,000 workers per year for an initial period of two years. The Administration has adopted this recommendation. In the Reagan proposals, guest workers in this pilot project would not be tied to specific employers, would work only in those areas and job categories designated by the Department of Labor as being short of labor, would be required to pay taxes, would not have access to food stamps or to welfare, and would not be permitted to bring in their spouses or children.

It should be clear from this summary that although the Select Commission and the Presidential Task Force had their disagreements (e.g., on how best to handle worker identification, on how to give Mexicans a slightly better shot at legal entry, and on whether to have even a token guest worker program), in their broad outlines the proposals of these advisory groups were similar. Each constituted a serious attempt to legalize immigration and drastically cut down on the numbers of people flowing into this country. The recommendations put forward by the Administration last July seem to seriously compromise both these goals.

First, on the key issue of sanctions against employers of illegal aliens, the Administration proposal for modest fines and possible injunction-with no criminal penalties-is far too weak. But above all, in rejecting proposals for a secure worker identification system (either a counterfeit-proof Social Security card or the work authorization system developed by the Department of Labor) the Administration effectively torpedoed employer sanctions. Employer sanctions have been on the books in a dozen states for years, but they have never worked because there is no reliable method by which employers can distinguish illegal aliens from citizens and legal aliens. Counterfeit versions of all the identity documents proposed by the Administration are available all along the Mexican border. Indeed, counterfeiters are reacting quickly to the July announcement and are building up supplies. In August the Border Patrol reported that packages of forged documents were flooding into southern Texas. The packages included a U.S. driver's license, birth certificate and Social Security card, and were selling for a mere $200.

It is estimated that two-and-a-half million illegals cross the border annually and of these about one-half million stay. These people come because they can obtain employment in the United States. A new policy which features easily forged documents and weak civil penalties for employers will not prevent illegals from finding jobs, and if the lure of lucrative employment remains, a slightly beefed-up Border Patrol will not stem the inflow of illegal aliens. If, for the want of a secure worker identification system, employers continue to employ illegals, hundreds of thousands of illegal aliens will continue to pour over the border, as our society will not tolerate the police state tactics necessary to keep them out. (In the absence of employer sanctions one would need elaborate hardware such as fences and sensors and at least 50,000 guards to make the border reasonably secure.)

In addition, by making the conditions for winning amnesty so harsh, the Reagan recommendations further undermine the effort to legalize immigration. Remember, temporary resident aliens would have to announce their presence, wait for ten years, agree not to bring in relatives, pay taxes but go without benefits, and then, if they behave themselves and learn English, they could apply for permanent resident status (citizenship would take another five years). It is unclear how many illegals would find these terms an improvement on their current status. Would not many (most!) stay underground? The amnesty recommendations have already stirred intense opposition. Tony Bonilla, National President of the League of United Latin American Citizens, has called the proposal tantamount to "government-sanctioned serfdom" for the affected aliens.

Moreover, these two basic defects feed on each other. A secure worker identification system would interact with a less condition-laden amnesty program so as to greatly strengthen the incentive for illegals to come forward. If employer sanctions were made effective by instituting a foolproof worker identification system, illegals would neither be able to get jobs nor to change jobs. This would therefore prompt many illegals to legitimize their status through amnesty. In short, the lack of a secure system of worker identification not only undermines employer sanctions but greatly weakens any amnesty program. Under the Administration's proposals the great bulk of the illegal aliens now present in the United States would go underground, remaining in a twilight status and with the breadwinners probably obtaining the necessary forged papers to get and change jobs with either innocent or conniving employers. This is the worst of both worlds with a vengeance.

A final problem with the Reagan policy package is that it retains the Task Force's recommendation of a 50,000-person guest worker program. From a political standpoint this proposal jeopardizes the whole package in that it is bound to provoke intense opposition from labor groups and yet fails to satisfy those who would like an expansionist policy. In evaluating this part of the Reagan program, it is useful to take a closer look at the debate surrounding guest worker programs, and especially at evidence from the past experience of both the United States and Europe.


Campaigning in Texas last September, Reagan called for a policy that would permit hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to enter this country and work on a temporary basis. Some of the President's longstanding supporters-Governor William Clements of Texas, Senator Harrison Schmitt of New Mexico, and Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, as well as the National Council of Agricultural Employers-are keen supporters of such a policy, and it has at least some firm backing within the Cabinet. Earlier this year the White House Office of Policy Development under Martin Anderson developed a plan for a new guest worker program of 500,000 to 750,000 persons a year.

However, the Task Force in its official report to the President on July 1 "heavily recommended" a guest worker program of not more than 50,000 persons a year (indeed, a minority group within the Task Force was in favor of a program as small as 20,000 persons a year). Considering the fact that two-and-a-half million illegal immigrants a year are estimated to be flowing into this country (500,000 of whom stay), a guest worker program of 50,000 persons a year is a drop in the bucket, a token gesture that acknowledges, but fails to live up to, those campaign promises of less than a year ago. (The proposed 50,000-person figure is roughly the number that crosses the border on a fine spring weekend.)

Advocates of a guest worker program contend that such a program is an essential component of any program to control illegal immigration, both as a way to meet the labor needs of employers who now rely on the undocumented workers and to provide an additional "safety valve" for Mexico. They argue that special sectors of the U.S. economy have become dependent on an annual flow of immigrant labor, currently illegal, and that an abrupt cutoff of this flow (or limiting it to the numbers who could enter under the proposed Mexican ceiling for permanent legal immigration) will add seriously to what are already likely to be frictions with Mexico over the whole of the new policy, while possibly creating unwanted political instability there or elsewhere.

On the other hand, opponents have a host of arguments on their side. A special group of temporary legal workers inevitably raises its own serious questions of legal and human rights, as well as nightmarish problems of selection by the sending country and allocation within the United States. If an agreement were made exclusively with Mexico, would not other countries object, under today's conditions? And even if there are spot shortages previously filled by temporary illegal labor, should there not be determined efforts to fill these with American citizens or aliens already present, and especially to ensure that standards of pay and treatment are brought up to levels that would attract such labor?

Some of these arguments have particular force in the present U.S. economic situation. Others are illustrated by a brief look at the record of past guest worker programs in the United States and at the postwar experience in Western Europe. The Select Commission, in reaching (by omission) its clear conclusion against any guest worker program, had available extensive research on these historical experiences. The historical evidence alone does throw a sharp and questioning light on the idea.

The first guest worker program in the United States was initiated only months after this nation enacted what was then the most restrictive immigration legislation in its history-the Immigration Act of 1917. This temporary worker program was a response to strong pressures from the large agricultural employers of the Southwest who wanted to maintain a cheap labor force, and was first described as a temporary farm program, although it later was expanded to allow some Mexican workers to be employed in nonfarm work. Partly justified as being a necessary part of the war effort, the program was ended in 1922 because organized labor contended that it undermined the economic welfare of citizen workers, and because many people believed that there were no labor shortages, only greedy employers who wished to secure economic gains from cheap docile workers. During the life of this program, 76,000 Mexican workers were admitted to the United States, one-half of whom eventually returned to Mexico.

In World War II, the military drain on U.S. manpower led to assertions that another labor shortage existed in the agricultural sector. Despite some hesitation on the part of the Mexican government (prompted by the discriminatory treatment accorded to the people of Mexican ancestry throughout the Southwest), negotiations between the two governments resulted in a formal agreement in 1942, and the Mexican Labor Program, better known as the Bracero program, was launched. Under this program, which continued in various guises until 1964, Mexican workers were afforded numerous protections in the U.S. labor market with respect to housing, transportation, food, medical needs and wage rates.

The most dramatic effect of the Bracero program was to lower wage costs for agricultural employers and to adversely affect the employment opportunities of citizen workers in the United States, particularly the Chicanos who composed the bulk of the Southwestern agricultural labor force. At the program's peak, almost one-half million Braceros were working in the agricultural labor market of the Southwest. This availability of Mexican workers significantly depressed existing wage levels in some regions; modulated wage increases that would have occurred in their absence in all other regions; and sharply compressed the duration of the employment many citizen farm workers could find. They simply could not compete with Braceros, who as captive workers had little option but to respond to the demands made upon them, and were thus especially appealing to many employers. As a consequence, the Bracero program has been seen as a significant factor in the rapid exodus of rural Chicanos between 1950 and 1970 to urban labor markets, where they were poorly prepared to find employment and housing.

Perhaps the most lasting impact of the Bracero program was its exposure of hundreds of thousands of penniless Mexican workers to the wide array of economic opportunities that were available in the U.S. economy. Both during the Bracero years and immediately following the program's termination there was an accelerated growth in the number of illegal immigrants, many thousands of whom were former Braceros. Although clearly the Bracero program did not create the underlying economic incentives for illegal immigration, it did serve to highlight those incentives in an immediate and compelling way, and directly contributed to the size of the contemporary immigration problem.

The Bracero program was unilaterally terminated by the United States in December 1964. By then it was under strong attack by all groups who had an interest in the welfare of domestic labor, and the program had soured relationships with Mexico (due to the mistreatment of Mexicans and the corruption which had grown up in and around the allocation of work permits). The retrospective judgment of most scholars in the field is that the program stimulated illegal immigration, did little to end the exploitation of Mexican workers, and had an adverse effect on the wages and working conditions of domestic U.S. agricultural workers.

Europe admitted over 30 million workers for temporary employment outside permanent immigration channels between the mid-1950s and the early 1970s. The chief driving forces behind this massive inflow were the high growth rates and labor shortages experienced by many European countries in the 1950s and 1960s; the assumption was that migrants could be imported to fill job vacancies, and that when growth rates fell these migrants could be returned to their homelands. This assumption turned out to be false. As Swiss author and playwright Max Frisch put it, "We asked for workers, but human beings came."

The main receiving societies in the European guest worker program were the nine countries of the European Economic Community (EEC) (excepting Ireland and Italy) and non-EEC Sweden and Switzerland. The sending countries included Ireland and Italy, Portugal, Spain, Finland, Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, Algeria, the Sudan and Morocco. France and West Germany recruited 70 percent of all guest workers, but guest workers had their greatest impact in Switzerland, where in 1970 nearly 35 percent of the workforce was foreign.

The program reached its peak in the early 1970s. By 1973 Germany employed 2.6 million guest workers; Switzerland 887,000; and Sweden 200,000. In that year remittances to labor-sending societies topped six billion dollars. Recruiting was abruptly halted, however, in the wake of the 1973-74 energy crisis, and at that point most European countries adopted a three-pronged strategy for coping with their foreign populations. Migrants were encouraged to return home (France, for instance, instituted departure grants of $4,500 plus airfare for a family of four), bilateral assistance programs were offered to labor-sending countries to create more jobs in those nations, and there were attempts to integrate those guest workers who remained.

None of these solutions was very successful. Some guest workers who had overstayed their welcome responded to threats and bribes and went home, but many stayed, raising serious new questions of policy. What rights did the spouses and dependents of already migrated workers have? What rights did such dependents have to seek employment in the host country? Many European nations eventually gave guest workers full legal rights, but it was a costly business, as domestic unemployment rates were rising in the mid-1970s and citizen workers resented what they saw as unfair competition for jobs from ex-guest workers and their dependents.

Ten to fifteen years later, the net result of the European guest worker experience is a smaller foreign workforce (approximately five million persons, with no new recruitment of workers), an increasing foreign population (approximately 12 million) as dependents join ex-guest workers, and a host of economic, social and political problems that these nations have not yet resolved. For example, in Switzerland and France 30 percent of the foreign population is under 15 years of age, and in both countries efforts to integrate these foreign youths into the school system and into the labor market have largely failed.

Perhaps the most telling result of the European experience with guest worker programs is that even if unemployment decreases and job vacancies reappear, few observers expect labor-short countries to revert to temporary workers again.

Faced with a battery of arguments from the experts, and this evidence from the previous experiences of the United States and Europe, it is no wonder that the Select Commission rejected any form of guest worker program and that the Presidential Task Force backed away from recommending a large program. The Task Force was probably also influenced by the fact that domestic opposition to such a policy initiative has been building up. The National Committee for Full Employment (a coalition of church, civil rights, Hispanic American and labor groups) has said that "it makes no sense to bring additional workers to the United States when there are eight million unemployed."3 Equally firm in their opposition are the AFL-CIO, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. One of the main concerns of these groups is that guest workers are likely to become a permanent subclass of employees, subject to exploitation, and capable of dragging down wages and working conditions for all unskilled and semi-skilled citizen workers. This is particularly hard to swallow at a time when the Reagan Administration is trying, with its "workfare" reforms of the welfare system, to bring a new class of displaced industrial workers into competition for low-paid jobs. It must be remembered that the Bracero program was born as a result of a severe wartime labor shortage and that the European guest worker programs were triggered by national unemployment rates as low as one percent a year. The United States in 1981 cannot begin to justify a guest worker program on similarly clear-cut grounds of labor shortage.

If a new large guest worker program is difficult to defend and politically dangerous, moreover, attempting to institute a small pilot project will get the Administration into as bad if not worse trouble. A small program will spin off as many bureaucratic headaches as a large one (e.g., How is such a program to be designed? Who is going to administer it? What are its ground rules?). It is also likely to run into as many issues of principle, (e.g., How do you define the civil rights of non-citizen workers?). Yet a small program will neither serve the purpose of U.S. employers nor maintain the "safety valve" for Mexico. The suggested 50,000-person yearly quota will not staff the sweatshops and restaurant kitchens of New York City, let alone provide for the manpower needs of California growers. And Mexican officials see a guest worker program of that size as at best an irrelevancy, at worst an insult.


When President Reagan was framing his new policy package on the immigration question in July of this year, he faced three options. He could ignore the main thrust of SCIRP and his own Task Force, and, by utilizing a large (or very large) guest worker program, legalize and continue the massive inflow of cheap labor into this country. Or he could adopt the recommendations of the experts, and bend his considerable powers of persuasion to the purpose of getting a tougher and tighter new policy through Congress. Or he could, in essence, lose interest in a new national immigration policy, and by presenting an incoherent and ineffective policy package, allow the issue to abort itself. After all, the current mess has the virtue of allowing into the country all those cheap exploitable people without anyone (least of all a government) having to take responsibility for them.

The first policy option was effectively excluded when the President accepted his Task Force's rejection of a large guest worker program. The arguments, the evidence and the domestic opposition were just too heavily weighted against it. As a large guest worker program is probably the only legitimate way of maintaining the current huge inflow of labor, the barring of this policy option was a serious blow to Reagan's desire for cheap imported labor.

The second policy option was, and is, politically unappealing to Reagan and his Cabinet. In plain terms, they are unwilling to pay a large price (in terms of employer support-principally in the Southwest-as well as Mexican demands) for a more restrictive new policy along the lines of the SCIRP recommendations or those of the Task Force. We must remember that the beneficiaries of such a policy would be low-income Americans (young people, minorities, women) who would have a better chance of getting a job and could win better conditions on the job if the inflow of immigrants were reduced. They form a coalition which is neither well organized nor politically vocal, and their influence-particularly with the current Administration-is not large. In the long run it clearly seems in the national interest to enact a tough new policy which will prevent an escalation of those problems described at the beginning of this paper. But it is hard for any President elected for a four-year period to think in the long run, especially when the immediate beneficiaries of such a change in policy have little to offer in return.

Having discarded options one and two, President Reagan has in effect adopted the third option, a policy package with little internal coherence or force. In its present form it is almost certain to be greatly modified by Congress. Pressure groups are beginning to mobilize against it, and our legislators are too well educated on the issues involved to allow such a flawed set of policies through. It is also true that Reagan is unlikely to pursue his new policy with much enthusiasm or vigor. After all, he was persuaded to give up his preferred policy option and has little political capital invested in the version finally adopted on July 31. The passage of a new immigration policy can never be easy, given the way traditional political coalitions are at odds on this issue, and serious commitment on the part of the President might well be a necessary condition for any new policy to stand a chance of success.

The upcoming debate on the President's package is likely to affirm the view of the advisory committees, that it is in the long-term national interest of the United States to gain control over illegal immigration and to limit the rate at which people are flowing into this nation. Such a policy would enable the United States to better protect the jobs and working conditions of millions of its less-privileged citizens, prevent the exaggeration of racial and ethnic tensions within our society, and provide for the human rights of those millions of illegals now underground.

It should be obvious from the previous discussion that any serious effort to achieve these policy goals has to include the following four elements: a tough set of employer sanctions, a reasonably foolproof system of worker identification, better control of the borders, and an amnesty program that encompasses enough carrots and sticks to make it work. In addition to this core program, measures should be taken to minimize the adverse impact of a new immigration policy on countries which the immigrants seek to leave.

Employer Sanctions. An amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act to make it unlawful for employers to hire workers who are not in the country legally is essential to effective immigration control: only this can greatly weaken the economic incentive for workers to cross the border illegally. Employers who break this law should face a penalty which is severe enough to constitute a reasonable deterrent, e.g., a fine of $5,000 per illegal alien hired. Repeated infractions of this law should carry criminal penalties.

Worker Identification. Employer sanctions cannot work unless employers are also provided with a reasonably foolproof method for determining worker eligibility. If the Social Security card could be made counterfeit-proof, it would serve this purpose. There are, however, several objections to this solution. Social Security officials argue that the card was never intended to be an identifier, and that its use for that purpose would overburden the fragile Social Security information system. It is important to remember that the Social Security apparatus is primarily concerned with verifying the legitimacy of those who receive the benefits it pays out, and it has little incentive-and few mechanisms-to prevent extra people from paying in.4 Any departure from that traditional emphasis would likely be both costly and controversial. The cost of issuing new Social Security cards, according to a 1980 estimate, would be between $850 million and $2 billion. The suggested use of the cards as an identity document, moreover, has been sharply attacked by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other groups, which claim that it would bring this country perilously close to the adoption of an internal passport.

Because of these objections, the Department of Labor, at the request of SCIRP, designed a "Work Authorization Enrollment and Verification System." This system would not require workers to carry cards or employers to make any judgment about the applicant's authorization for work. Instead, a federal agency (which could be the U.S. Employment Service) would determine eligibility for work and would verify the work authorization of all applicants for the employer. Job applicants would inform employers of their work authorization numbers, and employers would receive immediate verification by calling the agency's toll-free number and noting the transaction number on the applicant's record.

To safeguard civil liberties and privacy, the contents of these records would be strictly limited. The very limited information collected, and the separation of records, would eliminate any potential for identifying workers through employers or employers through workers. The system would not burden the Employment Service; on the contrary, "piggybacking" on the computing power and communications capability of a fully automated system could provide a much needed and valuable aid to traditional U.S. labor-exchange activities. For example, job openings, job banks and professional registries could be immediately available to the entire country. If this capability were to make our domestic labor market more efficient and reduce structural unemployment, the system would perhaps pay for itself in the long run.

The direct cost of this system would also be much less than estimates for the Social Security system. According to Department of Labor estimates, implementation costs would be $87 million and operational costs would be $200-300 million a year.5

Obviously, any new identification procedure would apply to all entrants and job changers and therefore would avoid the intensification of discrimination against "foreign-looking" people. And, although any new verification plan is bound to trigger fears of enhanced government surveillance or of an emergent internal passport system, it should be remembered that right now every worker in this country is supposed to have a Social Security number in order to hold a job. The fact that our current method of identification was designed to do something else and is cumbersome, inefficient and easily forged, actually opens the way to abuse of individual freedoms.

The work authorization system designed by the Labor Department for SCIRP would not require anyone to carry a card, would not place the responsibility for determining workers' legitimacy on the shoulders of the employer, and would add important new capabilities to our employment service. Clearly, there would need to be elaborate safeguards; but, as with other dimensions of immigration policy, the societal costs incurred by a failure to act far outweigh the risks of careful initiative.

Control of Borders. Better policing of the borders and a more effective method of detecting and deporting illegals who are already here should complement the measures described above. (We must remember that some illegal immigrants have no documents, while others originally came in on nonimmigrant visas, and stayed on in violation of the law.) As it stands, the entire Border Patrol of the INS is no larger than the force that guards the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and its record-keeping system is so bad that it is impossible to tell whether or not many people entering the United States with student or tourist visas ever leave. These control efforts should be rationalized, and the INS budget should be increased far more than the Reagan proposals envisage-to roughly double its present level of approximately $350 million.

It should be stressed, however, that control of the borders can never substitute for broader measures such as employer sanctions. If jobs continue to be available to illegals, the pressures to cross the borders will be such that there will be no practical way of keeping undocumented aliens out.

Amnesty. A carefully balanced system of amnesty is essential if established illegal aliens are to come forward and legitimize their status. Amnesty is desirable for two reasons. It avoids mass deportation, which would be very damaging to the internal affairs of the United States as well as to the domestic economies of countries such as Mexico, and it solves the problem of continued underground existence for millions of people in this country. This state of affairs obviously invites exploitation and intimidation.

Any illegal immigrant who entered the United States before January 1, 1980, and who has been in continuous residence for three years, should be permitted to remain in the country as a permanent resident alien. Most resident illegals would qualify for this program, thus avoiding the problem of dealing with a class of temporary residents with restricted human rights. These new legal resident aliens would have the normal rights and privileges of permanent residents and would be allowed to bring in their close relatives (the normal country ceilings would be suspended until backlogs were cleared).

There are huge administrative and verification problems associated with any amnesty program, and the experience of other countries suggests that there has to be a carefully orchestrated system of carrots and sticks to persuade people to come forward. The fact that illegal aliens would be applying for permanent resident status and could then bring in their close relatives should make it an attractive and humane program. In addition, if an effective worker identification system were enacted at the same time as amnesty, illegals would have a powerful incentive to come forward for employment purposes (once such a system was in place, illegals could not change jobs). On the other side of the coin, a more effective INS system for detecting and deporting illegal aliens would be an important deterrent to staying underground.


It is important to point out that the four measures described above are interrelated, so much so that if any one measure fails to be enacted, the policy ceases to achieve its overarching goals. For example, employer sanctions become unworkable without a fool-proof identification system, and amnesty will not be successful if deportation fails to become a credible threat, which in its turn, obviously means more resources for the INS.

Beyond its internal benefits, the four-point program described above would have the further important advantage of maintaining a short-term "safety valve" for those countries which are the sources of illegal migration-again most notably Mexico. Under the program, as the Select Commission noted, there would be no sudden cutoff of the migratory flow, as the amnesty program would bring in several million Mexicans via the route of family reunification. Indeed, this policy would result in a type of migration particularly helpful to Mexico, as it would consist of a cross section of the population and not just prime-age males.

After the amnesty program has accomplished its purpose and the new immigration controls are in place, it might be appropriate to increase the ceiling for Mexican immigrants if labor market conditions within the United States warrant it. For example, if U.S. economic growth rates are relatively high (four to five percent per year) and unemployment is relatively low (five to six percent per year), it might be possible to raise the ceiling for Mexican immigrants without prejudicing citizen workers. However, if the U.S. economy is in recession, it becomes hard to justify an expansion of the Mexican ceiling. In short, the ceiling should be conceived of as a sliding scale (with the current level of 20,000 persons as a base) linked to the health of our own economy. When we are able to absorb additional Mexican workers we should indeed invite them in, but as permanent residents with full legal rights and not as illegals or as guest workers.

As well as easing the short-run costs of a tighter immigration policy, the United States should think creatively about promoting labor-intensive development within Mexico. For example, the United States could make trade concessions so as to increase Mexican access to the American market for certain types of labor-intensive products, and development assistance could be more finely geared to small-scale agricultural projects and land redistribution schemes. However, a word of caution is necessary here. It is unclear how much the United States can or should do in terms of influencing Mexican development policy. It is in our national interest that Mexico experience sound, balanced growth and political stability, but we must recognize that such goals can ultimately be reached only through Mexican leadership. We can be sensitive to this process and aid it with policies compatible with our national interest, but we cannot dictate its course.

Any explicit linkage of immigration policy with issues of trade or energy is probably unwise. The Mexican leadership, by and large, resents such linkage (it smacks too much of U.S. control), and policy areas such as energy respond more to world conditions of supply and demand than to any special favors exchanged between Washington and Mexico City (witness the dramatic turnaround of July 1981 when an oil glut pushed Mexico from a sellers' into a buyers' market in the space of 15 days).

In any area of policy, the United States must respond in the first instance to the needs of its own citizens. Although Mexico and indeed most of the Third World face enormous problems which migration can help relieve, the United States cannot be expected to put foreign problems ahead of its own (which at the present time are not inconsiderable). Along with other nation-states we have the fundamental right to protect our borders, and we cannot be expected to negotiate that right.

The program outlined above includes the essentials of a new immigration policy that would reduce and control the flow of people coming into the United States. It is important to stress that this policy package is not just another in a series of failed attempts to solve the immigration dilemma, but instead represents a comprehensive approach, backed by a powerful new consensus. The two major advisory committees (the Select Commission and the Presidential Task Force) ended up supporting its elements despite very different starting points, and there is evidence that key interest groups that were once opposed to its provisions are beginning to accept the need for such an approach. Although labor unions (which include many recently arrived Americans who waited years to come in legally) have long been bitterly opposed to amnesty for undocumented workers, the Executive Council of the AFL-CIO in August 1981 endorsed a version of amnesty which included the principle of family reunification. In a similar vein, the American Civil Liberties Union has become more muted in its opposition to a new worker identification system, and may soon be prepared to accept the system developed by the Labor Department for SCIRP.

Enactment of the necessary legislation to support this program will still face real obstacles, but the scope of the problem in itself should urge important new effort. We have to get our hearts in line with our heads, and our myths in line with reality. Many of us hate to say no to that worthy individual from the poverty-stricken country who just wants to do a little better; it seems selfish to say no, and The Lady in the Harbor would not understand. But America owes its first duty to its own disadvantaged, unemployed and poor. And that has to mean, sooner or later, restricting and controlling entry into this country in the fashion of other nations.

1 Editorial, "Immigration Dilemma," The Journal of Commerce, May 22, 1981, p. 4.

3 The New York Times, May 11, 1981, p. B8.

4 This orientation was vividly illustrated approximately three years ago, when F. W. Woolworth Co. included an imitation Social Security card in a plastic wallet it was marketing. An estimated 30,000 people paid in on the card's number for several months before being discovered.

5 A Work-Authorization Enrollment and Verification System: A Technical Working Paper, U.S. Employment Service, U.S. Department of Labor, Washington, October 1980, p. 4.



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  • Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the Executive Director of the Economic Policy Council of the United Nations Association (UNA-USA). She was previously on the faculty of Columbia and Cambridge universities and is the author of The Cruel Dilemmas of Development and the editor and part-author of the forthcoming Brazil and Mexico: Patterns in Late Development. The Economic Policy Council has recently completed, and is about to publish, a study on immigration policy prepared by a panel chaired by Jacob Sheinkman. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and not those of the Economic Policy Council. The author is grateful for the comments of Ray Marshall (formerly Secretary of Labor) on an early draft of this article.
  • More By Sylvia Ann Hewlett