My Immigration Solution

By Eugene Robinson (THE WASHINGTON POST, 14/04/06):

I've written several columns arguing that our society should welcome the current influx of immigrants, not brand them as felons or build a fortress wall along the Mexican border. Quite a few readers have written to ask, often not quite this politely, "Okay, so what's your solution?" That's a fair question, so I'll try to answer it.

The easy part, for me, is how to deal with the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. I think the thing to do is put them on track to citizenship -- all those who want to become citizens, at least, and whose only crime is being here without the required documents. The word "amnesty" is politically radioactive, so we can call it something else, but at the end of the day that's what it's going to be.

After all, we invited these people to come here and pick our strawberries, clean our offices, pluck our chickens, bus our tables, wash our cars and perform a host of other jobs for which our society no longer wants to shell out working-class wages and reasonable benefits such as health insurance. By "invited" I mean that we left the Mexican border essentially open, gave employers the luxury of no-questions-asked hiring without any credible threat of sanctions, and failed to make clear who was supposed to enforce the immigration laws and how. That adds up to an invitation.

The economic counterargument that gets made is that undocumented immigrants depress wages for all low-skilled labor. But I don't hear the claim that there's an actual glut of unskilled workers -- just that the undocumented, because of their precarious position, will work cheap. Shouldn't it follow, then, that wages will rise when these workers are legitimized, enfranchised and unionized?

Some readers have written to argue that the amnesty, whatever it's euphemistically called, would "reward illegal behavior." Let's be real: We're talking about behavior that our society has encouraged and exploited. It would be like a police officer who flags you down, says it's an emergency, asks you to drive him across town as fast as possible and then writes you a ticket for speeding.

Now for the hard part: What to do about the border?

The U.S.-Mexico border is not like most frontiers. It's true that in satellite photos you can see the line in some places where the world's richest country ends and its less affluent neighbor begins -- one side is lit up like a Christmas tree, the other is in shadow. But from ground level, the border is less a line than a zone extending many miles north and south. The border between the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico has always been transcended by family ties, common economic interests and cultural kinship. Cleaving these linkages apart with an impenetrable wall would be a radical step, and ultimately self-defeating.

So I don't want to see an Adobe Curtain, with watchtowers and Dobermans. I also don't want to see would-be migrants used, abused and sometimes left for dead in the desert by ruthless coyotes -- the people-smugglers who are the only unalloyed villains in this whole affair.

The alternative I'm left with, then, is sanctioning enough of a flow of Mexican immigrants across the border to change the current incentive equation. At present, it makes more sense to thousands of people each month to risk their lives with the coyotes than to "get in line" to come in legally. People wouldn't take that risk if they had the realistic hope of being able to enter someday, say within a year or two, by air-conditioned bus.

I don't have a specific number for "enough," but it would meet the demand. You could set the limit comfortably below the numbers now crossing illegally and still expect the border "crisis" to shrink back into a manageable "issue," since fewer people would choose a perilous dash through the desert. We wouldn't need a new wall.

It does not diminish America's sovereignty to decide to let more immigrants come in legally. Border cities would need some federal help to fulfill their role as welcome centers. Some migrants would eventually go home, some would stay and become Americans, some would go back and forth. It would be just like what happens now, only without the drama.

We should give the migrants some sort of official status so they can participate in the economy -- and so it would be harder for unscrupulous employers to take advantage of them. But don't call them "guest workers," which sounds Orwellian. Call them by their names.