Immigration Pressure Too Much for States

Posted September 23, 2005 at 2:44pm

Immigration control is a duty of the federal government, and one at which it is failing miserably.

Out of today’s rancor and rhetoric on immigration reform, there is one point of agreement: Our current immigration system is broken and the status quo is untenable. The American people — particularly those who live along the border — are fed up and angry. The failure of our system to cope with the demands on it has caused a breakdown that virtually invites illegal entry and unlawful employment. Our economy, communities and national security are all impacted. Every year, we see proposals to shift the burden of immigration enforcement to states and localities — jurisdictions already stretched thin. Our answer as Congress cannot be to abdicate responsibility where we have failed.

Soundbites are an easy response: “It’s time to shut down the border,” “We need an immigration ‘timeout,’” “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” Simple, but they demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of the causes of the problem or an unwillingness to deal with what is required to craft a workable solution.

For those who argue that all we need are more guards on the border, statistics prove them wrong. Between 1986 and 2002, the Border Patrol’s budget increased ten-fold from $151 million to $1.6 billion per year and the number of Border Patrol officers tripled. Operations Gatekeeper, Rio Grande, Blockade, Hold the Line and others have shifted border traffic from San Diego to Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Not surprisingly, deaths in the desert have tripled.

What this border buildup hasn’t done is decrease the number of people entering the United States. That number continues to grow, as does the price smugglers charge for transport. The buildup has, however, effectively ended the circularity that many say is ideal for our labor demands. People are now less likely to leave because they fear they won’t make it back.

Without solving the core issues causing our immigration problems, we’re left in the business of catching people, incarcerating them until we can ship them home on the taxpayers’ dime and sitting in wait for them to try again — or worse, releasing them because we have inadequate detention space. Our Border Patrol is left to tread water in the flood our current policies cause. This vicious cycle will remain until we create a real employer verification system, a legal flow of authorized workers and a system that better fosters family reunification.

What statistics show us is that improving border security is but one piece of a comprehensive plan that addresses the economic incentives leading people to risk their lives to come here. Left to loom over us is the divergence between the demand for mainly unskilled workers and the supply offered by our immigration system. The half-million workers crossing our border illegally each year are not coming to collect unemployment. They come because they know there are jobs.

When there is excess demand for a resource and access to that resource is controlled by the government, conditions are ripe for an illegal or “black market” to exist. In this case, the resource is low-skilled, low-wage immigrant labor. Over-restricting legal immigration forces domestic workers into competition with illegal immigrant labor willing to accept subsistence wages. The domestic worker will lose, particularly where there is inadequate employer verification. Responsible employers who want to play by the rules have been warning for years that the demand for immigrant labor is far outpacing legal supply.

The excess demand is met with illegal immigrants supplied by smugglers. If immigrant workers will pay a premium to coyotes because there are few legal means for them to enter, we must create a new and more efficient channel. The opportunity to immigrate legally for a fee should be far more attractive than paying a smuggler who might abandon them in the desert.

If we divert into a legal system most of those truly coming to work and support families, the job of the Border Patrol will change drastically. By coupling legal means of immigrating with vigorous enforcement and incentives to use the new avenues for entry, we will focus the job of Immigration and Customs Enforcement on those who intend to do us harm.

In the end, enforcement efforts must be about priorities and allocation of resources. If the first duty of the Department of Homeland Security is security, then they must know our priorities. If DHS expends fewer resources deporting the hotel maid, it will have more resources to focus on criminal aliens already here and terrorists trying to come here. Resources are a zero sum game, and we have not been allocating efficiently.

To effectively address the resource question, immigration reform must deal with the 11 million people already here — the equivalent of the combined populations of New York City and Los Angeles. But last month our federal government couldn’t evacuate a city of less than 500,000 people, most of whom wanted to get out. Consider also that these people are not just living here, they are working. Removing them would have a huge impact on our economy, and besides, we simply don’t have the resources to remove them.

Mass deportation of illegal workers is not the answer. A meaningful reform plan must include a way for undocumented immigrants to come forward and undergo the same scrutiny endured by those entering legally. If the undocumented are working and have no criminal record, we should create a temporary status; a way for them to atone for their decision to enter or stay illegally; and some way to earn the right to stay.

Immigration is a federal government responsibility. The anger of Americans living along the border is legitimate. We should not be willing to accept incomplete or unrealistic solutions because of political impediments. Realistically, requiring 11 million illegal workers to return home on a promise that they might get to come back in a temporary status will only drive them further underground.

These are the essentials of real reform: border security and enforcement, including a real employer verification system; a legal supply of workers; and a plan to deal with the current population of undocumented immigrants that will bring them forward without encouraging future illegal behavior. Our previous attempts illustrate what happens when we focus our efforts on just one piece or another. Loopholes and weaknesses are exploited and the system fails. These pieces must be taken together and soon. Any proposal that does less should be rejected.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.) is a member of the International Relations Committee.