Immigration Bill

I’ve refrained from commenting on the recent McCain-Kennedy compromise on illegal immigration (The “Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007”) until now. Frankly, the hysteria that has surrounded the issue these past few months has overwhelmed reasonable discussion. Still, there’s been quite a bit of movement on this over the weekend that’s worth commenting on.

My short position on this, to recap what I’ve discussed in greater detail in numerous posts: I’m culturally conservative enough to want to stop illegal immigration 1) because it’s illegal and 2) a too-rapid influx from one non-assimilating culture is dangerous. Practically, however, I think 1) there’s nothing short of shooting them on sight that’s going to allow us to stop them from crossing a 2000 mile border with no real natural barriers and 2) there’s a huge demand for their labor or they’d stop coming.

N.Z. Bear has done yeoman’s work in creating a blog-friendly, annotated, version of the bill, which will allow easier quoting and linking of controversial passages. The Heritage Foundation is also at work creating policy papers and the like. Perhaps they will help get more reasoned analysis going.

On the more animated front, Mark Steyn has an amusing column that dubs the bill “capitulation,” blames it for too many Hispanics going to school in Long Island, the D.C. sniper, and the 9/11 attacks. Hugh Hewitt has written nine posts and counting. John Hawkins is threatening to (Google) bomb any Republican senator who votes for the bill in something called “Project Payback.”

Mark Tapscott, who disagrees with me on the issue, has a sober take on it in today’s Examiner editorial:

That bipartisan immigration “reform” bill, crafted during secret negotiations led by President Bush, Sen. Edward Kennedy and Sen. John McCain, combines a Republican desire for cheap labor with a Democratic vision of cheap votes. The result is a stubborn refusal to halt illegal immigration, one of the most serious problems facing the United States. By granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants, this legislative chimera would make securing our borders even harder than it is now.

The Senate plan hinges on issuing three categories of renewable Z visas for skilled temporary and agricultural workers (and in many case their families as well), with provisions that would supposedly prevent document fraud. But the new visa program would be run by the same bureaucracy that has proven incapable of enforcing existing immigration laws. And if it’s impossible now to “round’em up and deport all 12 million of them” — as we incessantly hear — why should anybody believe the immigration bureaucrats will be able to find the millions of illegals to make sure they jump through all the new hoops?

The Senate bill essentially offers amnesty for illegal workers who show up to pay a $5,000 fee, promise to learn English, go back to visit their home countries, and then wait up to 13 years here for a green card. However, the real risk of being sent home is extremely low; only a fraction, for example, of the 600,000 illegals who are convicted felons being held in state and federal prisons will ever be deported. Even with generous incentives, many illegals will find it easier simply to maintain the status quo.

He’s largely right, I think, on both the motivations and the substance. I fully agree that all the sops to the “border security” faction are obvious shams with little chance of actually working.

Why, then, am I not more upset? Because we have to judge political outcomes based on what’s possible rather than on what we would ideally desire. Tapscott writes,

By rewarding illegal entry with a visa and eventual citizenship, this bill is an affront to the millions of legal immigrants who show enough respect for American values to stand in line and wait their turn. Few immigrants will be stupid enough to do so in the future.

He’s right, of course. But here’s the rub: That’s already the case.

I’m reminded of the famous debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot on the “Larry King Show” over NAFTA. Perot kept showing photos and citing studies about horrible conditions in border towns to warn about what would happen if NAFTA passed. But, given that he already had the photographs, he was merely documenting the status quo.

Illegal aliens are here by the millions now. They’re flouting the law now. It’s unfair to those who abide by the law now.

We have, in recent years, toughened immigration law to require employers to be more stringent in verifying that those they hire have a right to work in this country. For a variety of reasons, that hasn’t worked. It’s spawned a cottage industry making it relatively easy to get fake documents. Further, the federal government lacks the manpower to check the records of every single person hired in the country. Nor, frankly, would we want to live in a country with an army of immigration cops harassing business owners every day with demands to show them papers on all their workers.

Our border is too long to effectively patrol and, again, do we really want a Border Patrol of tens of thousands ready to shoot people who wade across the Rio Grande or climb over a theoretical wall? Or, for that matter, to spend billions in a bound-to-fail effort to keep people on the other side of a Tortilla Curtain despite demonstrable demand for their services here?

As a matter of principal, we should either enforce the law or change it. It seems quite evident that we’re not going to — and probably can’t — enforce it. Changing it therefore seems prudent. Granting visas to people who are going to be here anyway, so that we can more easily track their activities and collect taxes from them, strikes me as better than nothing.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Bithead says:

    As a matter of principal, we should either enforce the law or change it. It seems quite evident that we’re not going to — and probably can’t — enforce it.

    Oh, we COULD, but we WON’T. Not PC.

    And you point out, correctly, I think, the key issue; A lack of enforcement. The issue here is not new laws, the issue is we dont’ enfoce teh laws we have.

    So let’s assume this passes… and we have new laws…. and assuming… just assuming… that the new laws are just, and in our interest… which they are decidedly NOT… on what basis do we assume these new laws are going to be better enforced than the old ones?

  2. Patrick McGuire says:

    I disagree that we can’t enforce it, there just isn’t any interest by the Feds to do so. I wonder what the reaction would be if, instead of 12 million low skill workers, these people were terrorists invading our country. Would we still have the position that we can’t find them and force them to leave?

    In the end, it will matter little what the Feds do, or don’t do, as the case may be. The American people will eventually realize how ineffective the Feds are at any meaningful function and will take matters into their own hands. This is already being done around the nation with Oklahoma passing strong anti-illegals legislation by a wide margin and with a town in Texas doing the same.

    While these two examples deal with the matter of illegal immigration, there are other examples of the local governments telling the Feds to take a flying leap, such as county governments in Utah openly defying the BLM. And then there is the matter of the DC gun ban being challenged by citizens.

    There are many of these stories and they all point to one trend: the Amercian people are tired of a government that doesn’t serve them anymore so they are writing it off to become more self-reliant.

  3. James Joyner says:

    I wonder what the reaction would be if, instead of 12 million low skill workers, these people were terrorists invading our country.

    Obviously, we’re willing to spend more money and impose more draconian measures to prevent people from murdering us than from picking our lettuce. It doesn’t therefore follow that we should treat every problem as an existential one.

  4. Dave Schuler says:

    There are two different approaches to enforcement: pass a law you’re willing to enforce or abolish the law. Unfortunately, our entire system depends on most people obeying the law and, in the case, of immigration, that’s not working to well.

    I’m not too concerned about the cultural aspects of Mexican immigration, James. Check Mexican demographics and incomes. The present flood of Mexican immigration won’t last forever.

    However, I do think that we need to consider our immigration policy very carefully. The next wave of immigrants (and there will be a next wave) will be poorer, less educated, and harder to assimilate than the present wave.

  5. I have avoided posting on this topic this go ’round as well for many of the same reason you note. For another, I am not convinced that we are going to get any actual legislation passed, and as such the current round of histrionics will likely be, like the last time we did this, much sound and fury signifying nada.

    And enough with the notion that this is about terrorism: it isn’t. It is about a lot of things to a lot of people, not the least of which being an age-old fear of immigrants in general. As I have noted before, the evidence suggests that terrorists are more likely to enter legally than they are to try and smuggle themselves over the Mexican border. Further, the Canadian border (which is longer even than the Mexican border) is just as likely, if not moreso, to be a point of entry and yet no one is crying for a wall to the north.

  6. Andy says:

    a too-rapid influx from one non-assimilating culture is dangerous

    Indeed. Of course, that’s not happening now, nor did it when similar fears were raised about the Jews, Irish, Italians, etc.

    Foreign born Hispanics probably integrate far more easily now than those immigrants from other cultures in past waves, given the proliferation of popular culture and media.

    And all actual evidence suggests that like every previous set of immigrants, the children of modern arrivals are fully integrated, primarily speaking English among other things.

  7. Director Mitch says:

    Yes, we should just legalize anything that is difficult to police. That is why libertarians want make drugs, prostitution and illegal immigration legal. It’s going to happen anyway, right? And anything that is really difficult just can’t be bothered with. It’s a lot is easier to just ignore the problem and go back to your sheltered lifestyle.

  8. James Joyner says:

    we should just legalize anything that is difficult to police.

    I wouldn’t go that far. I would, however, argue that we should balance the cost and difficulty of enforcement with the gains that can realistically be achieved.

    In the case of, say, violent crime, it makes sense to have cops out there trying to prevent it and, more realistically, catch those who do it as a disincentive. In the case of, say, marijuana smoking, the harms to society are likely very small in relation to the cost of cracking down.

  9. floyd says:

    A country that can’t [or won’t control it’s borders is no country at all. This begs the question as to why any United States citizen should consider himself subject ANY of the laws of such a government.
    Should we just refrain from enforcing any law that is not completely enforceable? Murder, rape,burglary, theft, and extortion will always be with us. Should we then legalize them? I think not!
    The answer here is to recognize that we have a large number of our elected officials committing treason for the sake of convenience!

  10. Eric says:

    Balance remains the key. We have to have humane, enforceable laws that strengthen and unite the country.

    Along those lines, open discussion and civilized debate -as appear on this website – seem invaluable. If the Senate held open hearings, openly published the entire bill, and went through the normal legislative process, then a better, more honest bill would emerge that reflects the public’s desires.

    Details matter – especially on complicated issues like immigration. Let me share one example. The current naturalization law requires applicants to “read, write, and speak English”. What does that actually mean? Read and understand the Washington Post? USA Today? A cartoon strip? A food warning label?

    How will applicants be tested? Will they be required to sit through a 40 hour class on civics and language like in the 1986 amnesty bill? Or will the standard resemble Bill Clinton’s 1995 naturalization rush where applicants had to write two sentences – and spelling errors were allowed. The favorite dictations in Los Angeles Adult schools – where I taught citizenship at the time were: “I love the U.S.A.” and “My family lives in L.A.” Wow! What standards! Can’t we do better? Shouldn’t we do better?

    Given the paucity of real information and the reluctance to have an open debate by elites in government, the Chamber of Commerce, and the mainstream media, it’s hard to make a fair evaluation of the proposed bipartisan compromise. But, when in doubt – especially on issues of profound significance – vote no!

  11. Tlaloc says:

    Tlaloc makes popcorn, settles down in his seat and watches the fireworks

    Oooh. Pretty!

  12. Patrick McGuire says:

    Thank you James for proving my point. It’s not a matter of whether or not we CAN enforce our laws but rather a question of do we have the inclination.

  13. Michael says:

    I think that with border security, like so many other things, it’s not a matter of if we can enforce it, or even if we should, but how can we maximize the enforcement while minimizing the cost (both dollars and freedoms). There is a point of diminishing returns, where an increase in border security doesn’t necessarily equate to a similar decrease in illegal immigrants.

    Take a look at the thread about security cameras in the UK for a perfect example. Most people who consider themselves to be “conservatives” here would oppose such a measure, because what you win in safety isn’t worth what you lose in privacy. Yet having a few security cameras at important places is a perfectly acceptable solution for most people. Now apply that feeling to immigration.

  14. Michael says:

    Should we just refrain from enforcing any law that is not completely enforceable? Murder, rape,burglary, theft, and extortion will always be with us. Should we then legalize them? I think not!

    No, but we also don’t have armed militiamen patrolling our neighborhoods to stop burglary. We don’t call for a man hunt when someone steals your TV. Sure those measures might cut down the frequency of those crimes, but you and I both agree that whatever benefit they can bring does not outweigh the cost.

    Nobody is proposing that we legalize all immigration, just that we need to strike a balance between enforcing the law, and providing opportunities to follow the law.

  15. David Nick says:

    I am getting so tired of reading comments from people who are obviously ignorant about this issue.

    You can’t read bylines and talking points from either side of the political aisle and formulate concrete evidence to sway the general public, although politicians would LOVE TO TRY!

    Illegal immigration is not just a criminal issue, or a political issue, or any other “insert name here” issue. Illegal immigration IS a problem that needs a solution however and your lovely elected officials see this not as a problem but a “windfall” for their agenda.

    The government won’t enforce the border or immigration laws on these illegals for 2 reasons (and I simply these two):

    Warm Bodies & Money.

    Sure there is votes to be had to sway political parties, sure there is unions who want new members to pay dues, but ultimately this can be boiled down to warm bodies (I.E. Labor force) and Money (Tax revenues, union dues, political contributions, solving the social security medicare crisis, enter money reasons here).

    Now, the government CAN enforce the borders. The reason we have a military is to defend our nation. That can and does include border enforcement. Certainly they are using National Guard troops to supplement the lack of Border Patrol agents, but even the government is tying the hands of BP Agents, and the National Guard.

    We can erect a fence, and yes it is costly, but, you either have a flood of illegals, or you put a stop to it via an open and porous border.

    I disagree with Steve who commented that illegal immigration isn’t a terrorism issue. Terrorists have come over the border, and in fact the Fort Dix muslims came over via Mexico to plot their attacks. Is this solely a terrorism issue, no, but it IS a national security issue and to say it’s not is ludicrous.

    If you just want to spew the talking points and not discuss this issue honestly, don’t write about it, don’t talk about it, and keep your ignorant and biased comments to yourself.

    Read, research, learn and know. Illegal immigration is a complex issue, but one that shouldn’t be resolved by John McCain or Ted Kennedy. Those two schmucks no more about drinking and being belligerent than they do about illegal immigration.

  16. floyd says:

    First there sure IS a faction that would legalize ALL immigration!

    I agree that it is a matter of “critical mass” or degree. When every tenth house is burglarized, every night, then it is for darned sure time to increase police presence to the degree it would take to mitigate it to a tolerable level.

    What is our lame, incompetent government doing today to reduce the criminal immigration problem to tolerable levels?