The immigration debate in America has recently switched direction by about 175 degrees. Only five years ago, the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (the so-called Jordan Commission) proposed to cut legal immigration by at least a third and eliminate illegal immigration through new workplace enforcement measures. The commission's recommendations were based both on critiques of the 1986 and 1990 immigration reform laws and on a growing sentiment that as America entered the twenty-first century immigration should be reduced from its record levels. This sentiment was reflected in annual Gallup polls, votes on measures such as California's Proposition 187, and studies showing new immigrants doing less well today than in previous times. It was also shown in increasing hostility toward new arrivals in immigrant-heavy states such as California, Arizona, and Florida -- hostility that showed signs of spreading to other parts of the country.
Yet only five years later, immigration into the United States is at its highest absolute levels in history: more than 1.1 million annually, some 400,000 higher than the previous high-water mark of around 700,000 annually during the 1900-1920 "Great Migration" (though as a percentage of population, today's rate of immigration, 0.4 percent, is actually lower than that at the turn of the century, 0.7 percent). Despite these high numbers, Congress' interest has faded. Immigration policy today is driven by businesses that need more workers -- skilled and unskilled, legal and illegal. Somehow, the process has gotten out of control.
With U.S. unemployment at an uncommonly low four percent, economic growth around five percent per year, and personal income and consumption at their highest rates in history, Congress has forgotten the Jordan Commission's recommendations. During the annual debate on H1-B visas (temporary permits for skilled workers) two years ago, Silicon Valley executives trooped before Congress, warning of a Y2K computer disaster unless the number of H1-B visas issued each year was increased. It was doubled. This year, Silicon Valley has new arguments for raising the H1-B visa ceiling to 200,000 annually, and Congress, along with presidential contenders Al Gore and George W. Bush, is nodding in agreement. Even labor has joined the bandwagon, with the AFL-CIO announcing that it would stop opposing illegal immigrants (for taking jobs from Americans) and start organizing them (to improve conditions). As a result, the United States could soon have millions of illegal immigrants with union cards but without green cards.
Few members of Congress say that they support the open-borders philosophy of House Majority Leader Richard Armey (R-Tex.) and others, but in fact, America today has just such a policy. The result is that employment-based immigration will rise to 200,000 annually in the coming years, family-based immigration to 460,000, refugees to 125,000, "diversity" visas (permanent resident visas for people from countries with low rates of immigration to the United States) to 50,000, and illegal immigrants will continue arriving at a rate of about 300,000 annually. Business will be happy; families seeking reunification will be happy; refugees seeking asylum will be happy; strawberry and tomato prices will stay low; high-tech start-ups will pay young Indian and Chinese programmers a fraction of what they would have to pay middle-aged Americans.
Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan praised immigration in Senate hearings earlier this year, then added, "While I can hold forth on the economic benefits of immigration ... there are many, many issues ... cultural questions, issues that have bedeviled the United States for 100 years in this area." These questions are based on evidence that unskilled immigrants are being exploited, are not assimilating as well as previous immigrants, and are forming a new immigrant "underclass." Further evidence from specialists at Harvard University and the RAND Corporation suggests that skilled immigrants are driving down wages for America's skilled labor force and diverting resources from the education of Americans. During recent hearings on H1-B visas, Assistant Secretary of Labor Raymond Uhalde warned, "Immigration fixes undercut efforts to improve public education, create better worker retraining programs, and draw the unemployed into the labor market."
In fact, today's policies foretell many dangers. What will happen to these new immigrant workers -- the vast majority of whom arrive with no skills -- when the economy slows down? What will happen when the 600,000 young engineers to be admitted over the next three years (adding to an existing H1-B population of 400,000) finish their indentures at precisely the same time that American engineers -- retrained through government programs funded by fees from companies that employ H1-B visa holders -- start seeking employment again? As B. Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University has pointed out in a new and exhaustive study of H1-B workers, "if not all, at least the majority" of H1-B workers intend to stay permanently in America. "We will have to create another miracle economy to absorb everybody," says Robert Bach, executive associate commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS).
But short of a new miracle, wages will fall, unemployment and welfare will rise, crime will increase, social conflicts of the kind reflected six years ago in California's Proposition 187 will again break out, Americans will call for more and higher fences along the Mexican border, more vigilante groups of the kind that now patrol the border around Douglas, Arizona, will form, and hundreds of thousands of immigrants seeking permanent residence in America will be on the streets.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans, in poll after poll, say they want illegal immigration stopped and legal immigration slowed. Immigration is running at record levels despite the recommendations of two presidential commissions (Hesburgh and Jordan), the National Academy of Sciences, the General Accounting Office, the National Research Council, and RAND's Center for Research on Immigration Policy.
To avoid an inevitable crisis, the new Congress and president should make immigration reform a high priority, starting with the Jordan Commission's proposals for both legal and illegal immigration. If the past is a guide, however, Congress will either do nothing, which is bad enough, or will continue to make matters worse.
THE BEST INTENTIONS
In 1952, Congress sent President Truman the first major immigration bill since the 1920s, one that revised and extended all the flaws of earlier bills, including a quota system heavily weighted in favor of three countries -- Britain, Germany, and Ireland -- and a ban on East Asian immigrants. Calling the bill "alien to our national ideals and our foreign policy," Truman vetoed it. When Congress overrode his veto, Truman established the President's Commission on Immigration and Naturalization, the report of which would become the basis for the 1965 Immigration Act, the most important immigration law in U.S. history.
It took 13 years for the commission to report and for Congress to act, but when President Johnson signed the Hart-Celler immigration bill on October 3, 1965, the United States entered a new era. The president's commission had found three major flaws in U.S. immigration law: it was based on distrust toward all aliens; it discriminated on the basis of race, creed, and color; and it ignored U.S. foreign policy interests. Hart-Celler sought to end discrimination and double the annual number of immigrants from 154,000 to 290,000 -- a compromise figure between the record-setting decades of 1900-1920 and the Depression years, when immigration slowed to 50,000 annually. By raising the numbers to nearly 300,000, eliminating country-of-origin quotas, and making family reunification instead of skills-based employment the guiding principle of immigration, the 1965 law promised more humanity and more equity.
Seldom has a bill had such unintended consequences. In fact, the 1965 act opened the floodgates. Family-reunification became the vehicle for tripling annual anticipated immigration. In the 1970s, the principle was applied to refugees from the Vietnam War, quickly overwhelming the quotas fixed by the 1965 law. Vietnam was followed by the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when Fidel Castro opened his prisons and hospitals and released those who would emigrate to America. Soon after Mariel came a flood of refugees fleeing Central America's civil wars and Mexico's poverty. By the early 1980s, the United States had a full-blown immigration crisis.
In response, Congress passed two immigration laws, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) and the 1990 Immigration Act. The first reform since 1965, IRCA was a result of what its supporters in Congress called the "grand bargain." Illegal immigrants present in 1986 who had been present since 1982 were amnestied and allowed to apply for citizenship. The law affected some three million people. At the same time, it tried to shut off the flow of illegal immigrants through so-called employers' sanctions, under which employers would be held responsible for determining who was legal and face fines if they hired illegal workers.
Employer sanctions proved a dismal failure. Congress would not include a workers' identification system in the bill to help employers distinguish between legal and illegal workers. With fake green cards, Social Security cards, and passports for sale on downtown street corners across America (and, lately, on the Internet), employers' sanctions without an alternative foolproof identification system stood no chance of stanching the flow of illegal immigrants. In 1996, the Jordan Commission would recommend creating a computer-registry system based on Social Security cards to serve as the identification system missing from IRCA. But Congress would reject that, too, in its 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Nevertheless, on the assumption that IRCA had solved the illegal immigration problem, Congress passed a 1990 law increasing legal immigration to the record level of 825,000 per year -- 700,000 immigrants and 125,000 refugees.
Taking office in 1993, President Clinton faced a political problem. California, which had voted for him, was just emerging from a recession that the state finance director had called "the worst recession since the Great Depression." With its unemployment rate at nine percent, the last thing that the state needed was a thousand illegal immigrants crossing the border at San Diego each day. California Republicans, including Governor Pete Wilson, recognized a hot issue and pinned the blame on Clinton.
The Jordan Commission -- established in 1990 -- might have provided a long-term solution, but Clinton needed a short-term fix. The result was Operation Gatekeeper, a massive increase in money and staff for the INS and its Border Patrol, plus the construction of a border fence reaching 14 miles inland from the Pacific. Extremists, such as San Diego area Representative Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), wanted to build a permanently patrolled, East German-style triple fence from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico, but Clinton would not go that far. In Texas, Operation Hold the Line -- a smaller version of Gatekeeper -- was also enacted.
But Gatekeeper, which is still in effect, has not reduced illegal immigration. instead, it has shifted it from the San Diego fence region inland, toward El Centro, California, and Yuma, Arizona. Border Patrol apprehensions in the San Diego region dropped 45 percent in 1994-98 but rose 88 percent around El Centro. There was "virtually no drop in apprehensions along the whole California-Mexico border in 1994-98," according to Wayne Cornelius of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Gatekeeper has also made border crossing more dangerous, pushing immigrants into the deserts and mountains. Reported immigrant deaths rose from 23 in 1994 to 145 in 1999. Luis Herrera-Lasso, the Mexican consul general in San Diego, complained that one of his consulate's primary jobs had become "picking up bodies."
The rising death toll on California's border -- some 750 since Gatekeeper began -- has created new tensions between the United States and Mexico. One of the rationales for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was that a growing Mexican economy meant fewer Mexicans crossing into the United States looking for work. But Mexico's financial crisis hit soon after NAFTA was signed, and illegal immigration continued apace. Historically, Mexico has never done anything to slow illegal emigration to the United States, regarding it as a net plus for both nations. Mexican nationals repatriate billions of dollars to Mexico each year, and Mexico argues correctly that border patrol is the responsibility of the receiving nation. Illegal border crossings from Mexico are the primary source of the five to six million illegal immigrants the INS says live in the United States today, increasing by 300,000 annually and spreading out around the nation.
The Jordan Commission was established in 1990 to reexamine U.S. immigration policy. Should immigration remain at historically high levels? The rationale for adding 700,000 immigrants annually during the first two decades of the past century was clear, but what was the rationale for adding 1.1 million immigrants annually in the 1990s and beyond?
Led by the late Representative Barbara Jordan (D-Tex.), who had earned a reputation for lucidity and probity in the House, the commission undertook the most exhaustive examination of immigration ever carried out in this or probably any country. In light of the surprise consequences of the 1965 and 1986 laws, its work could not have been more timely. Its mandate was to examine both legal and illegal immigration, and it found that the two were inseparable. Congress had tried to separate them in its 1986 and 1990 laws and would try again in the 1996 bills that grew out of the Jordan Commission's recommendations. Practically and intellectually, however, they cannot be separated.
How can one fix quotas for legal immigration without knowing the level of illegal immigration? The 1990 law fixed legal immigration at 825,000 because it assumed that illegal immigration had stopped with IRCA, which it had not. The Jordan Commission knew that if its recommendations on legal immigration were to be accepted, it had to come up with ways to stop illegal immigration.
Furthermore, legal and illegal immigrants cannot be separated because they are often the same people. The Census Bureau makes no attempt to distinguish between the two. According to the INS, 41 percent of illegal immigrants enter the country legally and overstay their visas. Most illegal immigrants are eventually legalized, as 3 million were with IRCA and as another 500,000 would be under a new Clinton proposal. Legal and illegal immigration are two sides of the same coin.
Congress began work on comprehensive immigration reform in 1995. The Jordan Commission's proposals, moderate and backed by the president, seemed likely to pass. In essence, they specified that legal immigration (including refugees) would be cut by a third, to 550,000 annually, to bring immigration back into line with historical levels; skills-based immigration targeting the nation's economic needs would be reemphasized by phasing out preferences for members of extended families (i.e., brothers and sisters); and illegal immigration would be eliminated through a computer-registry system that would verify legal job status. On the third point, virtually all immigration experts agree that if illegal immigrants are not allowed to work, they will not come. There is no evidence that people come to America to go on welfare, as proponents of California's Proposition 187 maintained. Illegal immigrants are not eligible for the most common forms of welfare -- food stamps, Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF), and Supplemental Security Income (though their children may be).
The Senate Immigration Subcommittee, headed by Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), incorporated the Jordan Commission's recommendations on legal and illegal immigration into a single bill calling for significant cuts in both skills-based and family-based immigration. When the Simpson bill reached the full Judiciary Committee, however, its chair, Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), backed by Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), insisted that legal and illegal immigration be separated into different bills. The leading role in the separation -- which everyone understood would doom the bill on legal immigration -- was taken by Spencer Abraham (R-Mich.), a freshman who has never hidden his view that immigration, particularly the skills-based variety, should continue at the highest possible levels. In a bitter fight, Abraham won and Simpson lost. "Members of Congress don't want immigration reform," Simpson complained, recognizing defeat. He accused Congress of "straining the fabric of the country." Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), backed by John Kyl (R-Ariz.), accused the committee of ignoring the interests of the Western states, where most of the immigrants headed. Simpson got the message: when he left the Senate later that year (he had been planning to retire), he was replaced as subcommittee chair by Abraham.
The fruit of six years of work, the Jordan Commission's recommendations came to naught. The bill to reduce legal immigration was scuttled; the computer-registry proposal enabling employers to verify the status of workers was killed, gutting the bill on illegal immigration. The 1996 law would prove as toothless as previous laws.
UPWARD MOBILITY STALLED
So what? With America at full employment, why not bring in immigrants one way or another to keep prices and wages down? How much more would strawberries cost if they were picked by unionized American farm workers? (According to some economists, such as Wallace Huffman and Alan McCunn of Iowa State University, not much more.) America has always been an immigrant nation, so why quibble over the difference between a half-million and a million more people per year? Doesn't the country need more workers to pay taxes to support an aging population? And why should it matter whether they are legal or illegal, since illegal immigrants are eventually legalized anyway?
Here is the nub of the issue: the effect of high levels of immigration on America today. In 2000, exactly one century after America opened its doors to all European comers to settle the West and realize its "manifest destiny," immigration is at record levels -- despite the fact that the West no longer needs immigrants and has a serious water shortage. During debate over the Jordan proposals in 1996, California's Feinstein warned of a population and cultural "Armageddon" for her state, where one-third of all immigrants settle. California's foreign-born population, mostly Mexican, has reached 25 percent. "The overarching concern here is that contemporary Latino immigration is shifting the country's ethno-cultural balance unacceptably, potentially leading to a crisis of national identity," says UCSD's Cornelius.
California, because of its sheer numbers, gets most of the attention, but record immigration levels represent a national problem. New immigrant communities are sprouting in the South, Midwest, Southwest, and Northeast. The same difficulties of adaptation and assimilation exist across the country.
In 1997, the National Research Council, appointed by the Jordan Commission to examine the fiscal, demographic, and economic effects of immigration, presented a radically different picture from that drawn by "open-border" economists. Fiscally, the council wrote, the overall impact of high immigration might be good for Washington (even illegal immigrants pay taxes), but it was bad for state and local governments.
The council echoed what immigration specialists such as RAND's Georges Vernez, Harvard's George Borjas and the University of California's Phillip Martin had been saying for years. These researchers write that, unlike earlier immigrants, new immigrants are falling behind in society instead of moving up. Vernez and his coauthor, Kevin McCarthy, found that three decades of heavy immigration into California, particularly from Mexico, had given the state a disproportionately high population of unskilled and uneducated workers, aggravating the wage gap between rich and poor, native and immigrant. Borjas' work shows that, on the national level, present levels of immigration have transferred wealth from poor minorities to the wealthy. He has found a decline in the relative skills of the overall immigrant population since 1965 and "a precipitous decline relative to the trend in the national population." Immigrants, willing to accept below-average wages, drive down wages for native-born industrial and farm workers. Farm and industry owners then profit from the unnaturally low price of labor. Immigration, Borjas concludes, has become an income redistribution program: "Workers lose because immigrants drag wages down. Employers gain because immigrants drag wages down." Similarly, Martin's studies show that immigration and guest-worker programs in California have created a permanent, foreign-born, exploited underclass that depresses wages and distorts the economy by keeping farmers from investing in more productive alternatives. "Employers," he wrote, "invest in lobbying to maintain the [guest-worker] program, not in labor-saving or back-saving alternatives."
These analyses all make the same link between immigration and welfare that ordinary Californians made in passing Proposition 187, which the courts have now struck down. Around 40 percent of California's welfare dollars go to immigrant-headed (either legal or illegal) households. Wilson championed Proposition 187 because he said that illegal immigrants had no right to state money, which is technically correct. The trouble is that most of that state money went for things to which they did have the right -- namely public schools, from which the Supreme Court says their children cannot be excluded, and TANF.
One of the paradoxes of America's failed immigration policy is the phenomenon known as "citizen children," the American children of illegal immigrants. These children, like any poor American child, are eligible for TANF. The United States, nearly alone among developed nations, grants citizenship to all children born within its borders, regardless of their parents' status. According to the Los Angeles County Welfare Department, of the 620,000 children in Los Angeles receiving food stamps and TANF, between 120,000 and 150,000 were born to parents in America illegally. An estimated half-million such children live in the United States today. For the INS, citizen children create a difficult situation: illegal immigrants can be deported (even if they rarely are), but what of their American children? Representative Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) has introduced a bill that would end the citizen-children phenomenon (which grows out of a controversial interpretation of the 14th Amendment), but it has never come to a vote.
The panacea that Congress offers for immigration anarchy is more guest workers, skilled and unskilled. Many of the 200,000 skilled guest workers brought in on temporary H1-B visas eventually will become illegal immigrants because their expiring visas will exceed by several times the number of permanent permits issued each year. The guest farm workers bill, called AgJobs, which will come up again in the next Congress, would bring tens of thousands of unnecessary guest workers into the country. A recent General Accounting Office report found no shortage of farm labor in America, and the two California counties with the highest unemployment are Fresno and Imperial, both farm counties. The growers' intent in lobbying for these bills is simply to drive down farm wages.
Guest-worker bills are Congress' favorite kind of "reform": they create the illusion of limiting immigration without actually doing it. Immigration specialists hate guest-worker programs. "There is nothing more permanent than temporary workers," says Martin. INS Commissioner Doris Meissner explained her opposition to guest worker provisions in a 1998 bill by saying, "Contract [guest] workers are defenseless, falling prey to employers willing to pay less than market wages and to use contracts over workers to maintain silence about substandard conditions. We should not want workers who are unable to enjoy the benefits of their taxes and involve themselves and their families in the community where they live."