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The Independent Institute
Commentary

How To Reform Immigration Laws


A punitive immigration bill passed by the House of Representatives last December has sparked protests in recent days around the country. In response, the Senate Judiciary committee passed a bi-partisan measure that would allow current illegals to stay in the U.S. and would open the way for more to migrate as guest-workers. Unfortunately, none of the proposed reforms will completely fix our illegal immigration problems and the House bill would actually make the problems worse.

There are already 10 to 11 million illegal migrants in the U.S. who perform crucial jobs in our economy. The Pew Hispanic Research Center estimates that 24% of all farm jobs, 17% of cleaning jobs, and 27% of butchery jobs are performed by illegal migrants. Any reform that forces these workers to leave the United States, permanently or temporarily, will disrupt our economy. U.S. employers and consumers would suffer as well as the migrants who are deported. Reforms that deport illegal migrants are unwise: for economic as well as humanitarian and pragmatic reasons.

More than one million migrants were apprehended attempting to enter the U.S. illegally in 2004, and it is estimated that as many as 500,000 per year succeed in entering illegally. We must recognize that increasing border enforcement alone will not eliminate the flow of illegal migrants. As long as opportunities are better in the U.S. than in Mexico and other countries, migrants will resort to increasingly extreme measures to avoid border controls. Successful reforms must provide a legal avenue for workers to come here.

Unfortunately, current reform proposals do not fully address these realities. The House Bill on immigration reform would make illegal immigrants felons, increase penalties on employers who hire illegals, and would erect a fence along approximately one-third of the Mexican border. This bill would be catastrophic for industries currently employing large numbers of illegal immigrants. The House bill also offers no alternative plan to increase legal entry. In short, the bill would disrupt our economy, cut off the flow of workers, and continue to encourage illegal immigration.

President Bush’s general outlines for immigration reform are somewhat better. He wants to include a “guest-worker” program along with increased border security. Allowing guest workers is a plus, but Bush unnecessarily requires U.S. businesses to demonstrate that no American workers are willing to take a job before a business can offer it to a temporary foreign worker. Job creation in the U.S. has matched increases in the size of our labor force over the last 50 years. Allowing more migrants into the U.S. actually translates into more jobs. In order to be successful, a guest-worker program must keep administrative burdens on employers to a minimum and must allow workers the flexibility to easily change jobs in our constantly evolving economy.

Bush also does not offer any guarantee that workers will not be deported at the end of their guest-worker period. Once a worker has demonstrated that he is here to work and has had no criminal record for six years, why wouldn’t we want to allow him to stay? Forcing law-abiding productive workers to leave will only harm our economy and create civil unrest.

The measure passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee was proposed by Senators John McCain and Edward Kennedy. Their bill would allow current illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. and apply for a guest-worker program after paying a fine. It would also permit approximately 400,000 new guest workers into this country each year and offer them a path to permanent residency after six years as a guest worker.

However, the McCain/Kennedy proposal should go farther. Why allow only 400,000 guest workers per year? Since they are good for our economy, shouldn’t we welcome as many as employers are willing to hire? With far more than 400,000 people wishing to migrate to jobs in America, this bill is only a partial improvement over the status quo. There will still be many illegal immigrants who attempt to enter the U.S. to improve their lives once the 400,000 limit is met.

Border security alone would harm our economy and fail to solve our illegal migration problem. The full Senate would do well to expand on the measure passed by the Judiciary Committee. A large scale guest-worker program with low administrative burdens and job flexibility for migrants with a path to permanent residency is a real solution if it allows in enough workers. It could enhance our economy and reduce the flow of attempted illegal crossings.


Benjamin Powell is a Senior Fellow at The Independent Institute, Director of the Free Market Institute at Texas Tech University, and former President of the Association of Private Enterprise Education. Dr. Powell received his Ph.D. in economics from George Mason University. He has been Assistant Professor of Economics at San Jose State University, Associate Professor of Economics at Suffolk University, a Fellow with the Mercatus Center's Global Prosperity Initiative, and a Visiting Research Fellow with the American Institute for Economic Research. He is also the editor of the Independent Institute books, Housing America: Building out of Crisis and Making Poor Nations Rich.