Fixing immigration, but not necessarily the Rubio way

By Reihan Salam
January 22, 2013

In U.S. political debates, there is a tendency to separate economic issues, like taxes, spending and regulation, from social issues, like abortion rights, gay rights and gun rights. Immigration, as a general rule, tends to fall in this latter bucket, as an issue that comes up mainly because it matters to Latino and Asian voters and a handful of vocal immigration restrictionists.

There is a decent case that immigration should really be understood as an economic issue – indeed, as the most important economic issue facing U.S. policymakers. That is part of why Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) has attracted so much attention for his recent call for comprehensive immigration reform, a call echoed by voices across the political spectrum, including President Barack Obama’s. But Rubio’s plan has been met with considerable resistance, in large part because debates over immigration policy also have a moral dimension. Understanding it is key to breaking out of our immigration impasse. 

But first, it is important to understand why the immigration issue is gaining momentum. Back in 2011, J.P. Morgan released a report that found that U.S. households own $70 trillion in physical and financial assets. This same report found that America’s stock of human capital, i.e., the collective education and experience of all U.S. workers, amounted to $700 trillion. Rather than pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into new roads, bridges and housing units, the surest and cheapest strategy for increasing our collective wealth is to import talented workers. Even as the United States is mired in a sluggish semi-recovery, vast numbers of skilled English-speaking foreigners are eager to settle in, to start  businesses and buy homes. These keen would-be immigrants represent low-hanging economic fruit, a fact that is well understood in Silicon Valley and Wall Street, where high-wattage immigrants have made an outsized contribution.

Among policymakers, there is a growing consensus that the United States should welcome more skilled workers. During the last presidential campaign, Mitt Romney called for granting work visas to foreign students who completed science, technology and engineering degrees at U.S. universities. The problem, however, is that most immigrant advocates don’t want to separate out the effort to increase skilled immigration from the far more contentious cause of giving America’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants, most of whom have modest skills, a “path to citizenship.” President Obama, in keeping with influential immigrant advocacy groups like America’s Voice, has insisted that the United States should only welcome more skilled workers as part of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that also addresses the legal status of the unauthorized.

And so Rubio, who represents a state that has long been a gateway for immigrants, has called for reform that would increase the number of visas for skilled workers, create a guest-worker program aimed at seasonal farm workers, require all employers to check the legal status of potential employees against a federal E-Verify database, and, most controversially, offer law-abiding unauthorized immigrants a path to citizenship. This path wouldn’t be an easy one, as it would require such immigrants to pay back taxes and a fine, and demonstrate some degree of English language proficiency. That said, Rubio’s approach is broadly in line with that advanced by the Obama administration, and indeed by President George W. Bush’s immigration reform effort from 2007.

Rubio deserves a great deal of credit for sparking a new, more constructive immigration reform discussion, and he has received the enthusiastic support of Representative Paul Ryan, a leading light among conservatives in the House. There is an underlying concern among conservatives and at least some moderates that the unauthorized immigrant population is likely to prove less economically self-reliant than their skilled counterparts. The deeper challenge Rubio faces, however, is that at least some conservatives consider his proposal too generous to unauthorized immigrants. To these critics, its various requirements and back taxes and fines don’t make up for the fact that unauthorized immigrants have violated America’s immigration laws, and in doing so have expressed a basic disrespect for our system of government. 

One answer to  this essentially moral objection is to offer a path to normalization instead. In the most recent issue of National Affairs, the right-of-center domestic policy journal, Peter Skerry, a Boston College political scientist and one of the leading experts on Mexican immigration to the United States, proposes a new approach to immigration reform. Skerry’s plan would allow unauthorized immigrants who arrived in the country as children to become lawful permanent residents with a quick and easy path to citizenship, in a slightly more generous version of the Obama-backed DREAM Act. Unauthorized immigrants who arrived as adults, however, would become “permanent non-citizen residents,” free to live and work in the U.S. but without the option of eventually becoming citizens.

For Skerry, the virtue of this approach is that it is straightforward and therefore enforceable. Rubio’s call for back taxes, fines and English language proficiency requirements is designed to avoid rewarding unauthorized immigrants for violating U.S. laws. Yet it is hard to imagine that America’s overstretched immigration enforcement apparatus could competently enforce these measures. Skerry’s penalty of permanent noncitizenship is easy to enforce, and it is serious enough to suggest that the nation takes violations of its immigration laws very seriously indeed. 

In a recent conversation, Skerry shared his skepticism regarding guest-worker programs on the closely related grounds that they are notoriously difficult to enforce. A small handful of countries, such as Canada, have crafted relatively successful guest-worker programs. But Canada’s program has succeeded in part by strictly regulating the lives of guest workers. Participation is limited to married men, and guest workers are isolated from the broader society. It is difficult to imagine that American civil libertarians would find such an arrangement acceptable. 

One assumes that immigration advocates would strongly object to Skerry’s proposal, as would many congressional Democrats. There is a widely held view on the left that offering a path to citizenship to unauthorized immigrants would redound to the benefit of center-left politicians, as low-income Latino voters have emerged as a key Democratic constituency. Conservative critics, meanwhile, will note that “permanent noncitizen residents” might at some point in the future be granted a path to citizenship, as Congress can always decide to revise the terms of the deal. Skerry’s proposal does, however, offer a way forward that meets the strongest objections of conservative opponents of immigration reform. That allows Congress to make progress on the far more important matter of skilled immigration. Best of all, it’s a proposal that America’s broken immigration bureaucracy can actually enforce.

PHOTO: A woman leaves the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services offices in New York, August 15, 2012. The U.S. government began accepting applications on Wednesday from young illegal immigrants seeking temporary legal status under relaxed deportation rules announced by the Obama administration in June. REUTERS/Keith Bedford

24 comments

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America granted amnesty back in the eighties, and what happened? We get 11 million MORE freeloaders who want it for them. “We, the people” want our borders SEALED and these squatters OUT of our schools, our jails, our hospitals and emergency rooms. But our politicians want their votes!

Their need for “bilingual everything” (they DON’T assimilate nor do they want to) is an unacceptable cost to the American taxpayer. GO HOME! Who represents the American people against the “Washington establishment”?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

OOTS is quite right. It is getting comical, and insulting to intelligent people now.
Perhaps, as another commenter has proposed, citizenship itself should be looked at. To me, an illegal worker from Mexico that works twelve hours a day in the fields and whose children are right there beside them or in school are far more worththy of citizenship than the guy born in the US living off unemployment more often than actually working and could care less about raising his own children.
Perhaps citizenship should not be a given right based solely on where your mother was when she popped, but on the contributions you make to society as an individual.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@TMC
why stop there? maybe you also think the color of a man should determine citizenship, or his religion, or sexual persuasion, or level of income, or whether you like his looks? i suspect it is your interpretation of “contributions” that you would want to see implemented. that is the problem – who determines which bunch is worthy of US citizenship and what arbitrary requirements are to be demanded? that’s why simply being “popped” inside of our borders is the only requirement, and should remain so.

Posted by jcfl | Report as abusive

@oots
since it is illegal to vote in the US without being a citizen, could you please enlighten me on how politicians are benefiting from all these illegals voting for them? and do i read you to feel that by “americans” you mean only us good ol’ white anglo saxon protestants?

Posted by jcfl | Report as abusive

@jcfl, apparently you have not read many of my posts. And I troll this site a lot too (sorry Reuters). Contributions are to educate yourself, get a job, stay informed and engaged. If not you get to live on a simple stipend and keep your mouth shut. I’m not very eloquent when it comes to explaining things to people. Perhaps pseudoturle or OOTS may elaborate for me.
All of those things you just brought up are not, to me anyway, reasons for citizenship any more. The world changed while we were all parting thru the 60′s and we need to adapt quickly or decline rapidly. Just playing the blame game is sure to speed demise. Locking ourselves away and wishing it all to stop and threating violence if it doesn’t won’t work anymore either. The world is still looking the US for leadership. If we don’t provide it soon they will look elsewhere.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Every time these Beltway wonks pursue something “comprehensive” they screw it up. They write 1,000 page law that is so convoluted, with so many exceptions, it becomes both meaningless and unenforceable. Why not do something simple, such as:

First, control the borders and block anyone/anything that does not follow the defined process. Protect Arizona, New Mexico, SoCal and Texas. Eliminate the concept of “sanctuary cities”. No wet foot-dry foot. All that goes away. Anyone caught violating the borders is fingerprinted and sent back–with no opportunity to emigrate here legally–in perpetuity.

Second, implement worker verification (E-Verify). Attach a $10,000 fine per worker for any employer that does not follow the process. Not eligible, you cannot work–just like Canada does. No ability to work (and no welfare, see below) will eliminate the attraction of coming here.

Third, restructure the legal immigration rules, so that anyone coming here (a) has a sponsor and (b) the ability to support themselves (or with the aid of their sponsor) for five years; (b) require they learn English, (c) they must apply for citizenship revoking their previous citizenship within five years. And, they must have a trade or skill that is in demand (again, just like Canada). That goes for the illegals that are already here. If they do not like it, they may return to their country of origin.

Fourth, eliminate chain immigration. Other than the spouse and children, every other adult must apply on their own. No parents or grandparents, brothers and sisters, or aunts and uncles. No priorities or special treatment. No eligibility for social security, Medicare/Medicaid, or other programs unless you work and pay into the system for the required quarters.

Each bill could be written an passed sequentially. Therefore, they are straightforward, concise and enforceable.

We are no longer an undeveloped country that can support open borders and unlimited migration. We should allow only those who embrace our freedoms and privileges to come here. We cannot afford to support the world’s poor and uneducated any longer. We also have the right to restrict who comes to this country.

This model is both moral and rational. The rules are defined for everyone–employers and immigrants alike. They are unequivocal and consistent. All we need to do is step up and make it happen.

This took less than 1,000 words. Surely Congress could do something in 25 pages or less.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

@coindependent
sounds very comprehensive. what does your congressional rep and senators say about your suggestions?
i do see some issues with controlling our borders and blocking entry. the southern states you mention may be do-able with billions spent, but our long northern border is another story. do we place a high impenetrable fence 5500 miles long in alaska and the northern states, including the great lakes and patrol 24/7? the north is where most of the illegals cross, i believe, even though the southwest gets most of the coverage. a comprehensive plan would have to consider all borders.

Posted by jcfl | Report as abusive

The new “Iron Curtain”. That’ll work for sure.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@tmc
do you ever post a constructive suggestion or just continually b*tch and moan about how bad you think the world is. i suggest you have your meds adjusted.

Posted by jcfl | Report as abusive

Immigration is destroying the American middle class.

Nature has not yet rescinded its unforgiving Law of Supply and Demand.

The plain fact is that immigration into any modern country has two serious, lethal effects on the native-born citizens:
1. Immigration sharply drives down wage rates.
2. Immigration sharply drives up housing costs (rent rates).

Thus employers and landlords benefit from immigration.
Thus common workers are greatly harmed by immigration.

When immigration is unchecked, as it is today into the US, even the immigrants will soon find their own wage rates dropping because of immigrants arriving next year.

In the entire history of America there has never been immigration flows at the huge, uncontrolled level that is taking place today. The Irish, Italian and German immigrations to America were tiny compared to the immigration today, and back then America was building factories.

Today there are hundreds of millions of people all over the world trying to move to wealthier countries. Impoverished people seeking wealth, whether in America, Europe, Japan, Saudi Arabia — any developed country of wealth.

But it is only America who has dropped its defenses and simply allows itself to be overrun. All the other countries in the world, COMBINED, do not allow the immigration that comes into America. Those countries behave the way America behaved during most of its history — they do not allow immigration.

Today, America is completely controlled by big companies and landlords who grow wealthy from depressing wages and raising rents.

Why should America even have a military if it is going to allow foreigners to simply walk in and take its jobs and buy its real estate unhindered?

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

Yeah, pretty much. I do try to be constructive on occasion though. And you are right, I’ve had a slow week and have been trolling this site to much. Besides, it’s like peeing in the wind anyway. Have fun with your fences.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

@ jcf. Point taken. The motivation is that if you eliminate the opportunity to work and government assistance, and require some financial base prior to arrival, you effectively eliminate the major reasons why people come here illegally. In an open society such as ours, you may never eliminate those with nefarious intentions at the borders, but you can minimize them nonetheless. I did not review the immigrations statistics, so I cannot contest your position regarding the northern or southern borders.

The net of the issue is that we do have the ability to control immigration–the issue is primarily motivation. Congress always legislates for the exceptions (thus you have 1,000 page legislation) which then makes enforcement difficult. You also have to have a court system that is consistent across the country. Therefore, simple rules deliver objectivity and consistency. (I don’t use the word “fair” because that is a subjective term.)

In summary, my premise is that if you remove the financial incentives (ability to work, public assistance, etal) then you eliminate the motivation (for both immigrants AND employers. Plus, if I am an employer that is going to get whacked for $10,000 per employee per offense plus legal fees, then I can afford to pay a reasonable wage to a U.S. citizen or a legal immigrant.

Posted by COindependent | Report as abusive

@jcfl,

“…a comprehensive plan would have to consider all borders.”

Simple solution. Mine our borders inland a mile or two. Leave the bodies for the buzzards. Word gets out fast…OHMYGOD THEY’RE SERIOUS! All that’s left is to deport the illegals here. Problem solved, PERMANENTLY!

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@OneOfTheSheep
““We, the people” want our borders SEALED and these squatters OUT…”
As an ex illegal squatter that struggled for 10 years to clean up an immigration night mare after being screwed by good American citizens right after entrance into the US, I would like to ask you what your definition of “We, the people” is?

Do truly all “the people” dare to demand the same as you? Those same people who just generations ago, or maybe only years ago fled their home country, or left everything behind to come to the U.S. for a better chance at life? Now that they have been granted the right to call themselves U.S. citizens, (a right given to them by prior immigrants that is), dare to forget their roots? Dare to claim the U.S. as their own, restricting access to everyone else who only want the same chance at life?

How about you? Were you born a U.S. citizen? Boy, how did you manage to do that? Tell me the magic formula how you chose to become a U.S. citizen by birth! Or are you part of the group mentioned above who forgot where they came from?

Do you appreciate your rights being one of “the people”? A right who prior immigrants decided to be given to you by birth? Or did you have to earn your rights, fight for your rights, and learn to appreciate your rights by going through the painful and humbling U.S. immigration procedures, which strip away your old self and make you a brand new creature; A U.S. citizen, a perfect superior being looking down at everything and everyone you left behind?

Read up on your history. It is after all YOUR “people” who YOU should learn about. Learn how your forefathers immigrated to this land, stripped away rights to life and rights to property, by brute force, built their empire on false promises to fellow immigrants, making them their slaves.

I’m purposefully ignoring all descent folks who came here to live in harmony and build community without being told what to believe or how much to pay taxes to the Queen. Those people are clearly not the same “We, the people” class you’re talking about. I doubt that these “people” would have wanted to slam the door behind themselves to their family and friends who were to follow them later to the great new lands.

Posted by jag-JstAnthrGuy | Report as abusive

@ tmc –

I was more than happy to stay out of this one, until you mentioned my name.

In truth, I agree 100% with OneOfTheSheep (don’t tell him or it will go to his head). As “OOTS” so delicately put it: “We, the people” want our borders SEALED and these squatters OUT of our schools, our jails, our hospitals and emergency rooms. But our politicians want their votes! Their need for “bilingual everything” (they DON’T assimilate nor do they want to) is an unacceptable cost to the American taxpayer. GO HOME! Who represents the American people against the “Washington establishment”?”

But he is absolutely correct. These people, who are sufficiently different in their cultural outlook are well on their way to destroying this country. We literally being invaded, just so the wealthy can get even wealthy with cheaper labor.

From that aspect, AdamSmith is also absolutely 100% correct in stating the economic danger they really pose to this nation.

By the same token, you are absolutely wrong — once, again your prejudices are clouding your judgement.

Taken together, OOTS and AdamSmith have expressed my sentiments exactly.

In case we don’t know how to build a fence that would keep intruders out, I suggest we contact the Israelis. Their fence-building techniques a “world class”.

whoever it was that commented that politicians aren’t looking for the votes from these people — which has seriously skewed the last 2 presidential elections — has a serious problem understanding that the Hispanic population votes as a block, and Congress is more than happy to cater to them. Soon, they will be the “ruling class” in this country. When that happens this country is in serious trouble, as in collapse of our government which they don’t want at all.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

Oh, and one more thing.

Anyone who tries to sell immigration based on “social issues” is attempting to sell you a large load of excrement.

Basically for the reasons stated above by AdamSmith.

There are NO OTHER relevant considerations beyond what he stated.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

@jcfl,

You said: “…since it is illegal to vote in the US without being a citizen, could you please enlighten me on how politicians are benefiting from all these illegals voting for them?” I’ll be happy to try, but my success is dependent on how open your mind and your eyes are.

Without photo ID, few polling places have the slightest idea who is standing in front of officials reciting addresses and expecting a ballot form or voting machine access in response. If one minority is sick or elsewhere, another can easily cast their vote. Same for people who have died…some continue to vote year after year.

And don’t forget the people in hispanic communities who make their living (or a good part of it) by creating forged “official” documents. Drivers licenses, green cards, Social Security cards…voter I.D. cards are EASY!

Since the eighties TWO generations of “anchor babies” illegals have popped out have reached voting age. More and more of them year by year. We can’t do anything about the ones we “have” but we can stop this ongoing process almost instantly with well planned and maintained mine fields.
You said: “…and do i read you to feel that by “americans” you mean only us good ol’ white anglo saxon protestants?” Not at all.

I said “Americans”. Meaning ALL legal ones of any color, whether natural or naturalized. Now, if really pushed, I’ll admit to a preference to “americans” that are WORKING if they report their wages, all of them, when applying for welfare or food stamps…but, heck, nobody is truly without prejudice of some kind if they’re human and honest – right?

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@ OneOfTheSheep –

I strongly disagree that we can’t do anything about the ones we have right now.

Take a look at the summary from the post by COindependent above. There is, indeed, plenty we can do to remove the financial incentives for them that keep them here draining our economy.

“In summary, my premise is that if you remove the financial incentives (ability to work, public assistance, etal) then you eliminate the motivation (for both immigrants AND employers. Plus, if I am an employer that is going to get whacked for $10,000 per employee per offense plus legal fees, then I can afford to pay a reasonable wage to a U.S. citizen or a legal immigrant.”

Speaking of draining our economy, don’t you people know that a large percentage of the Hispanic population’s income goes “home” to help support those who aren’t here.

That is all money that is never returned to our economy.

There is NO WAY these Hispanics benefit our economy.

Posted by PseudoTurtle | Report as abusive

@PseudoTurtle,

“In truth, I agree 100% with OneOfTheSheep (don’t tell him or it will go to his head).” LOL!

Military mercenaries are probably the most pure example of the adage : “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”. And more than a few are “put off” by my calculated directness. But I earnestly strive for consistency in my beliefs and positions. It is for readers to judge my success or failure.

There is no one who is going to agree with me 100%, which is good because honest debate keeps all with an open mind intellectually honest. In the past I suspect the rhetoric of impatience and frustration may have concealed a mind of great potential in identifying the more important challenges of our time. I believe it was Henry James who said: “There’s no more usual basis of union than mutual misunderstanding.”

It is always more productive to build on that which is in common than to rail against such differences as always can be found. Academia feeds us the past, and our eyes and ears feed us the present. It is for our brain to perceive our present course, envision the better alternative, and implement it where we are, with what we have, as best we can; and the sooner the better.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

@PseudoTurtle,

My comment that: “We can’t do anything about the ones we “have”…” was in specific reference to “anchor babies”. There’re here, they’re “legal” and that’s likely not going to change.

That’s certainly NOT true of the 11,000 illegals! COindependent is showing unusual perception and tmc does too. Any “way forward” will be a mongrel reflecting many ideas and interests.

Each of us in our own way agrees that amnesty in any way, shape or form at this late date is cultural suicide for any sustainable American economy of the future. We of such common mind should work together to counter this real and present threat.

Posted by OneOfTheSheep | Report as abusive

Excellent piece Reihan, and the resulting comments show what a huge arc and great distance there is from one side of the argument to the other.

From our beginnings America has been bi-polar at best about immigration. From the open arms and opportunity offered by Lady Liberty to the xenophobia that met the waves of different nationalities, we have always talked out of both sides of our mouths.

Pragmatically the cries of “No camels in the tent” seem hollow when compared to all the camels in the tent. There is no fence high enough nor wall long enough to reverse what already is.

We are well on our way towards becoming a Latino majority nation and as such I doubt we’ll be able to pick the skilled and refuse the rustic. Like it or lump it, reality will soon trump ideology.

Posted by CaptnCrunch | Report as abusive

Very well said CaptnCrunch.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

I was in Princeton NJ just this summer. Beautiful town. If you spend any time or do business there, you can’t help but noticed the Indian population of the town is, well, quite noticeable.
I’m afraid while much of the US is putting up fences to ward off our neighbors, the Asians will quietly, legally, buy most of the country. Their intent is not to assimilate either, but to free themselves from their own over population, corruption, and “enemy of the year”. Have you ever tried walking a few blocks in Mumbai? Hong Cong? Rio? Stopping the human tragedy that is happening on our border should be immediate, but fences and guns and mines do not stop tragedies, they make them.
I’m sorry to say it looks like the next few decades will be quite rough for the US as we retract into our shells of protectionism, I actually hate that word, protectionism. Into our own national self interests, and we will continue to not only deny that globalization is occurring, but also to delude ourselves into believing that we can control it to.
Bearing that in mind, I think I’ll find a new forum now. These short comments on public sites are again, just peeing in the wind.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

Here are several questions for Salam based on the post above:

24ahead.com/n/11212

Please ask him those questions on Twitter, in his comments, or at his public events.

Posted by 24AheadDotCom | Report as abusive