WE WRITE THIS BOOK TO add our voices to the call for systemic immigration reform. First and foremost, we want to draw attention to the urgency of the need for such reform. Americans often view the immigration debate in one-dimensional terms: either immigration as a matter of social justice, or immigration (especially illegal immigration) as a scourge. That contributes to the intense divisiveness surrounding immigration as an issue, which at times makes it a “third rail” in American politics. Politicians on both sides of the partisan divide duck for cover rather than confront an issue whose resolution is vital to our nation’s future.
The issue is indeed urgent. Immigration is a major driver of the American economy, an answer to tremendous demographic challenges, and a remedy for an inadequate K–12 educational system. At the same time, immigration that takes place outside the bounds of law weakens our institutions and threatens legal immigration. We believe that our nation’s immigration policy is a disaster, but one that can be successfully fixed through a combination of political leadership, bipartisan consensus, and—as with most of the difficult issues facing our nation—recourse to basic American values.
When immigration policy is working right, it is like a hydroelectric dam: a sturdy wall whose valves allow torrents of water to pour through, creating massive amounts of dynamic energy. The reservoir that supplies the power is full and constantly replenishing. The valves can be adjusted against the wall of water on the outside, easing the pressure or holding it back as necessary, but always allowing ample flow to meet the nation’s energy needs.
But today the dam is decrepit and crudely cemented over, with constant leaks that have to be patched. Its flow has been altered so many times that the dam’s structure has lost all integrity. Its valves are clogged, its spigot is broken, its energy generation is sporadic and unreliable. Water comes over the dam and through its cracks, and every effort to stanch the flow creates new fissures. Worst of all, the reservoir behind the dam—on which the nation’s energy supply depends—is drying up, and because the dam provides inadequate outlets for what remains, others are diverting it to competing uses.
The prognosis is all too clear: we need to replace the dam.
On that proposition, that we need to fundamentally repair our current immigration policy, a majority of Americans and their elected officials in both parties seem to agree. And yet, comprehensive immigration reform stalls repeatedly. It stalled in 2007 and 2008 even when President George W. Bush and congressional leadership from both parties made a major effort to enact bipartisan immigration reform. It never got off the ground following the 2008 election of President Barack Obama, despite Democratic majorities in both congressional chambers and the fact that Obama had promised to enact comprehensive immigration reform in his first year in office.
Even though immigration reform is one of the few major issues on which the potential for bipartisan consensus clearly exists, that consensus is constantly undermined, obviously by strident opposition at the extremes of both parties but also by a lack of political courage. All too often, elected officials who possess ample political capital to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality wither instead, in the face of hostile opposition from extreme elements of their respective partisan bases. That is the case even though those who stand on principle on immigration issues rarely suffer significant political consequences for doing so. The combination of ideological rancor, demagoguery, and political cowardice is lethal, with the result that we remain saddled with an immigration regime that nearly everyone agrees is profoundly dysfunctional.
Both sides are responsible for the impasse.
On the left, some push for open borders as a matter of justice. They excuse those who came here illegally and decry efforts to enforce the rule of law. Labor unions, which for much of the past century were the most vehement opponents of immigration, now sometimes pay lip service to immigration reform but still look out for their own parochial interests first and foremost. Although some Democrats have worked across the aisle to find bipartisan consensus on immigration reform, others wield immigration as a political wedge issue, preferring polarization to solutions. In his first term, as noted above, President Obama broke his campaign promise to enact immigration reform during his first year—which he easily could have accomplished given commanding Democratic majorities in Congress—and did nothing until the erosion of Hispanic support threatened his reelection chances.
On the right, immigration opponents see hordes of illegal immigrants taking jobs away from Americans who desperately need them and consuming social services whose costs are borne by overburdened taxpayers. They see immigrants, both legal and illegal, refusing to shed their culture or to adopt American customs and speak English. They believe that illegal immigrants contribute heavily to crime, and they agonize over the inexplicable inability of the American government to secure our borders. They see immigrants voting in large numbers for Democrats who constantly expand the scope and cost of the welfare state. And they are profoundly skeptical, given past broken promises, that any grand compromise on immigration will ever result in stopping the flow of illegal immigrants.
As a result, they insist that the borders must be secured before any other immigration reforms are considered. They oppose anything characterized as “comprehensive” immigration reform and denounce as “amnesty” any proposal that falls short of the deportation of all illegal immigrants.
It may very well be impossible to satisfy the extremes on each end of the ideological spectrum. But there is a broad middle ground on immigration that commands the support of a large majority of Americans. Moreover, after the 2012 elections, there seems to be more resolve than at any time in many decades to reach bipartisan accord on immigration reform.
We write this book in the hope that we as a nation will not let this moment pass.
We believe comprehensive reform should be constructed upon two core, essential values: first, that immigration is essential to our nation, and second, that immigration policy must be governed by the rule of law.
Those who expound only one of those values to the exclusion of the other do violence to both, because the two values are inseparable. We believe that our nation’s immigration policy must always trace back to those two primary values, not just as a matter of rhetoric but as a matter of reality.
Because the proposals we sketch below reflect those core values, we believe that a majority of Americans will support them. Public opinion surveys show that about two-thirds of Americans support a process by which illegal immigrants can obtain lawful status so long as they learn to speak English, pass background checks, and pay restitution.1 A large majority (63 percent) say that immigrants cost too much in terms of social services, but 79 percent say they take low-paying jobs that Americans don’t want. Majorities of two-thirds or more support strong employer sanctions for hiring illegal immigrants, doubling the number of Border Patrol officers, creating a guest-worker program, and keeping illegal immigrants ineligible for nonessential social services. By contrast, only one-third or fewer support in-state tuition for children of illegal immigrants, or driver’s licenses or Medicaid access for illegal immigrants.2
A 2012 survey by North Star Opinion Research also produced insightful results.3 It found that 55 percent of Americans view immigration as an economic benefit, while only 33 percent believe it is an economic threat. A fifty-two percent majority think creation of a guest-worker program would do more than law enforcement (35 percent) to strengthen our border. In fact, 73 percent agreed with the statement that “it is not possible to have absolute border control without a better system for handling guest workers,” while only 16 percent disagreed.
In terms of support for the DREAM Act, which would allow children of illegal aliens to remain in the country under specified conditions, 74 percent supported the idea while only 20 percent opposed it.
The upshot of public opinion surveys is this: Americans consistently support pro-immigration policies so long as the law is enforced. That gives policymakers a great deal of latitude in designing fundamental immigration reform.
One very significant boundary appears to exist, however: most people believe the overall number of immigrants should not be increased. Polls repeatedly show that support for increased numbers of immigrants is in the single digits, while most Americans either favor reducing the number or keeping it the same.4 Although that sentiment is strong, we think it needs to be challenged, for several reasons. Left to its own devices and without increased immigration, America’s population is shrinking and aging. We need more immigrants to stem that debilitating demographic tide. We believe there will be much less opposition to increased immigration if Americans perceive the need for and the value of immigration—which will happen if we fix our system so that most who enter our country add tangible value. The six proposals we outline below are intended to do just that.
Politicians should not fear taking bold, principled action on immigration. Regardless of what opinions most Americans hold on immigration, few people vote on the basis of that issue. Even in the Tea Party wave of 2008, only 4 percent of voters considered immigration the nation’s most important issue.5 Few political races have turned on the issue of immigration, and most immigration-based attacks on candidates have failed. Indeed, the recall of Arizona state senator Russell Pearce, the architect of S.B. 1070—as well as his failed comeback bid in the subsequent Republican primary in 2012—suggests that candidates for whom opposition to illegal immigration is the signal issue do not fare well. Elected officials have a great deal of room to maneuver on immigration issues so long as they advance policies that maximize the benefits of immigration and subject the system to the rule of law.
Likewise, we believe that proposals based on the core values we advocate can bridge the partisan divide. But that is not why we support them. Rather, we do so because it is crucial to our nation’s future that we set immigration policy on a sound course. Any such action will take courageous, committed political leadership. But we believe that the leaders willing to step forward to achieve such reform will be rewarded both by history and a more prosperous and diverse nation that continues to celebrate and advance its most essential principles.
We present six general proposals that we believe would strengthen America’s immigration policy and advance the important national goals that immigration policy is supposed to achieve.
1. FUNDAMENTAL REFORM
Because comprehensive immigration reform failed legislatively in the past decade, many are reluctant to try again. Indeed, some commentators believe that “comprehensive immigration reform” is a code word for inaction, especially given that President Obama promised such reform in his first year in office yet quickly abandoned it despite decisive Democratic majorities in both chambers of Congress. Others urge reform on a piecemeal basis—a DREAM Act here, a fix to visas for high-skilled workers there. “For all the storm and stress of our national immigration debate, there has been remarkably little inclination to go beyond treating symptoms,” writes columnist Jeff Jacoby. “But the basic architecture of the U.S. immigration policy itself—with its strangulating confusion of quotas and regulations, and its core assumption that immigration must be strictly limited and regulated—nearly always goes unchallenged.”6
We favor a comprehensive approach for two main reasons. First, the system as a whole is broken, and the various parts of the immigration puzzle are interrelated. For instance, a goal of sealing the border is hopeless without creating an immigration pipeline that provides a viable alternative to illegal immigration. Expanding work-based visas without modifying the family preference system could increase immigration levels to politically unsustainable levels. Finding a way for illegal immigrants to remain in the United States is a nonstarter if our borders are not secure against future illegal immigration.
Second, comprehensive reform is necessary to achieve bipartisan consensus. Proposals that appeal to one side but not the other will continue to polarize the debate. But a comprehensive proposal that addresses concerns on both sides of the partisan divide could command broad support, which is essential at a time when control of the federal government is divided between Republicans and Democrats. Such bipartisan consensus was achieved in the 1980s and ’90s. Our nation is growing weary of partisan division, and immigration is one important issue on which bipartisan cooperation should be possible.
We believe recent attempts at comprehensive immigration reform did not go far enough. They built on existing structures that themselves are outdated. Instead of further modifying the immigration policy behemoth, we should start from scratch. Our nation’s immigration laws have been amended so many times that they have grown amazingly complex, incoherent, and sometimes self-contradictory. The only people who benefit from the law’s complexity are immigration lawyers. A much more simplified, straightforward immigration policy would work wonders for the many people, businesses, and government officials who are subject to or affected by it.
Immigration historically has been shuttled among various agencies, each of whose missions touch upon immigration yet are not primarily focused on it. The administration of immigration started off as part of the Department of Commerce, then it was shifted to the Department of Justice, and more recently it has been divided among multiple agencies. Over the past decade, primary authority over immigration was given to the new Department of Homeland Security (DHS). Yet the departments of State, Labor, Justice, and Health and Human Services remain involved in immigration selection and processing. “A more rational reorganization,” writes immigration historian Roger Daniels, “would have created a separate cabinet department for immigration and placed the Washington officials dealing with immigration in one building under unified leadership instead of parceling them out all over town and inserting them into an organization in which immigration is, at best, a stepchild.”7
Placing immigration under DHS control made sense in the aftermath of 9/11, given that most of the Al Qaeda terrorists passed through our immigration system. But maintaining DHS’s hegemony over immigration policy does not make sense over the longer term. While security concerns must be a central part of any workable immigration system, other important national concerns involving immigration will suffer if those concerns are paramount. As Edward Alden observes in The Closing of the American Border, in the years since 9/11, “it is much harder for a terrorist to enter the United States than it used to be. It is also much harder for everyone else.”8 Travel, student, and worker visas have become backlogged even when security concerns about specific entrants are minimal, all to the great detriment of U.S. commerce.
Similarly, placing immigration under the hegemony of DHS diverts from that agency’s vital national security concerns. As Alden recounts, with the “decision to make tough immigration enforcement the priority of the Department of Homeland Security, the original goal of stopping terrorists faded further and further from the center of DHS activities.”9 Its stepped-up immigration enforcement efforts led to charges against 814,000 people in the agency’s first three years; yet in only a dozen of those cases did DHS make charges of terrorism or support for terrorism.10
Although it makes abundant sense for border security to remain a core function of DHS, immigration and naturalization functions are important enough—and distinct enough—to be placed either in a stand-alone agency or within an existing department (such as the Department of Commerce) whose mission is consistent with a national policy of promoting immigration. That should be part of a complete overhaul of the national immigration laws. The existing system simply is not repairable. The law itself is an obstacle to needed reform.
Out of cacophony we should aim to create harmony, both in terms of the law and the agency that implements and enforces it.
2. A DEMAND-DRIVEN IMMIGRATION SYSTEM
For centuries, American immigration policy has been based on the conceit that America is inherently a desirable place to live and work. While we hope the underlying premise always remains true, we need our immigration system to reflect the reality that the American economy is not always vibrant and that we are locked in stiff global competition for immigrants.
Like any other valuable good or service, immigration operates according to supply and demand. If the demand for immigrants exceeds supply, it will lead to a black market, as we have witnessed for the past several decades. Inefficiencies imposed by government likewise will create market distortions, such as shortages or excess supply. Our current immigration policy seeks to stifle supply and demand through a series of government preferences and quotas. Moving toward a demand-based immigration system would aid greatly in meeting our nation’s pressing economic challenges.
“[T]he problem with America’s immigration system,” observes Jeff Jacoby, “isn’t that too many people are breaking the rules. It’s that the rules themselves are irrational, illiberal, and counterproductive.”11 Some people are allowed to become legal residents automatically, even if they do not work and will consume e
Forging an American Solution
Forging an American Solution
Unfortunately, current laws are so cumbersome and irrational that millions have circumvented them and entered the United States illegally, taxing our system to the breaking point. Jeb Bush and Clint Bolick contend there are other unique factors currently at play: America’s future population expansion will come solely from immigrants. And for the first time, the U.S. must compete with other countries for immigrant workers and their skills.
In the first book to offer a practical, nonpartisan approach, Bush and Bolick propose a compelling six-point strategy for reworking our policies that begins with erasing all existing, outdated immigration structures and starting over. From there, Immigration Wars details their plan for advancing the national goals that immigration policy is supposed to achieve: build a demand-driven immigration system; increase states’ autonomy based on varying needs; reduce the significant physical risks and financial costs imposed by illegal immigration; unite Mexico and America in their common war against drug cartels; and educate aspiring citizens in our nation’s founding principles and why they still matter.
Here too is a viable variation of the DREAM Act as a legal status for children brought here illegally, and sound strategies for the Republican Party to revitalize their ever-decreasing core constituency.
With Immigration Wars as a beacon of hope, Americans can finally solidify a national identity that is based on a set of ideals enriched and reinvigorated by immigrants, most of whom fervently embrace our core values—family, faith, hard work, education, and patriotism.