On Comprehensive Reform (Immigration Edition)

Cross-posted from PoliBlog:

Writes Charles Krauthammer in today’s WaPo:

Beware legislative behemoths. Beware “comprehensive immigration reform.” Any bill that is 380 pages long is bound to have nooks and crannies reflecting private deals, quiet paybacks and ad hoc arrangements that you often don’t learn about until it’s too late.

Krauthammer then goes on to pick out specific provisions he doesn’t like and then to in general criticize what he calls the “pro-legalization” side.

However, I am not especially interested in looking at that aspect of the column. Rather, I would prefer to focus on those first couple of sentences, as they underscore part of what the major problem is with this entire immigration reform “debate” (and, indeed, what is often wrong with legislation that comes out of the Congress all the time). On balance, a major problem with Congress is that they create these massive pieces of legislation (which no one has read in its entirety) that at the end of the day usually do a very poor job of solving the problems it supposedly addresses. Indeed, for anyone who has read laws passed by Congress, it is clear that even if one does read the whole bill that it isn’t as if one readily understands exactly what the bill will do. Legislation consists of additions and subtractions to existing laws of the land, and so to really understand them, one has to understand what it is altering as well as the alterations. That isn’t something one does by skimming the text.

In terms of immigration “debate” (and I use the scare quotes quite deliberately) a major problem is that there is far more one than one issue on the table and each one of those issues is fairly complicated in and of themselves (no, it isn’t so simple as simply “controlling the borders”). As such, the notion that public policy aimed at just one of those issues would actually fix the problem is foolish, and the notion that a “comprehensive” major reform could somehow solve all of them in one fell swoop is, well, nuts.

Let’s think about it: there are issues here (in no particular order) of the labor market (and in multiple industries), US-Mexican relations, families, welfare policy (indeed, the issues of health care, aid to the poor, social security and so forth), education policy, border security, abstract notions of sovereignty in a globalized economy, trade in a globalized economy, preferences for certain types of immigrants, terrorism, drugs, human trafficking, cultural assimilation, and taxes to name a few. Further, one has to throw in philosophical conflicts over the power of government and the power of markets, the emotion that goes along with the terrorism issue, and the clear dimensions of race and culture. There is also the electoral politics of the issue: which party will benefit? Will more Hispanic citizens equal more Democrats? Have some Republicans courted this issue to curry favor with Latin voters? Each of those topics in that list are part of this debate, and I am sure I have forgotten quite a few.

Ultimately, I predict that any bill that passes with fail to substantially change the status quo, except perhaps for the worse, only because we have yet to have a debate about this issue that fully takes into consideration the complexity of reality. I have long argued (see some links at the end of this post) that it is nearly impossible to control this situation anyway, as the forces of the market in this case are beyond the abilities of Congress and the federal government of the United States. As such, the best that can be done is better management of it. However, that can only happen if the problem is broken down into its constituent pieces. The “comprehensive” approach is simply going to complicate an already complex situation.

I have long criticized campaign finance legislation as creating such a complex set of rules that there is no way that the ultimate goal of the legislation (controlling money in political campaigns) would be met (see, for example, the 527s). I have long called this “The Scotty Rule of Campaign Finance Reform” (as one of my favorite quotes from Star Trek III well describes the situation). As I read Krauthammer’s quote above, it hit me that Scotty’s Rule should be applied to probably any “comprehensive” reform package passed by the Congress–and certainly to the immigration issue.

This bill, if it passes (and I have serious doubts that it will), will not achieve the goals that it purports to seek. Indeed, I boldly predict now that it will eventually be classified as a “failure.” (How’s that for courage!)

I would also note that it would be rather helpful if we could put to bed the Atzlan/reconquista and “al Qaeda is coming via Tijuana!” “arguments.” Are there fringe groups that gripe about territory lost by Mexico to the US in the 19th Century? Yes, there are. Do they have any real political power? No, no they don’t. Further, anyone who thinks that it is impossible for persons of Latin American descent from integrating into US culture hasn’t lived in the Texas or the American Southwest.

In regards to al Qaeda/terrorism: is there a chance that terrorist could come over the Mexican border? Sure. But, they could come across the Canadian border, via LAX or JFK. Indeed, to date the known al Qaeda terrorists that have acted in the US have come in legally via airports, not in the trunk of a Ford Taurus driving in from Nuevo Laredo. Indeed, the only known land-border crossing was at the Canadian border with the Millennium plot.

I point this out because the idea that anti-terrorism is an endemic and major part of the Mexican immigration debate is simply not true. Indeed, it is more of a distraction than anything else. I say this not because terrorism, in general, isn’t serious question, but that clearly the probability that the Mexican border has been, or will soon become, a security threat of that nature is quite low–an no amount of hand-wringing, speculation or bluster will change that fact.

Some of my older posts on the complexity of this issue can be found here (the most comprehensive), here and here.

FILED UNDER: Borders and Immigration, Congress, Terrorism, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. floyd says:

    The constitution requires that any bill placed before congress must have it’s single purpose stated in the title and no other purpose delineated in the text. The C.S.A. constitution that is!
    All things considered, not such a bad idea, since complexity is nearly always intended for manipulation.
    There are very few truly complex issues.Usually there are only, perplexed, morally confused people placed over their heads in charge.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Solid post, Steven.

    While we’re putting things to rest in the immigration discussion, I have my own pet peeve. How about a moratorium on quoting The New Colossus?

    When Emma Lazarus wrote her poem in 1883, median per capita real wages had been rising for a century here, most Americans were farmers, and there were vast areas waiting for settlement and development.

    None of those is the case any more. Median per capita real wages have been pretty stagnant for a generation. Less than 5% of Americans are farmers. And very, very few immigrants come here to settle the unsettled areas.

    I’m in favor of increasing the number of work visas we issue every year to Mexicans enormously. But I’m also in favor of more serious border and workplace enforcement. I favor these things, not because they’re “poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free” but because they make sense to me.