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Bad Immigration Policy Threatens Disastrous Results

January 11, 2004

Politicians from both parties think President Bush’s immigration plan is unusually deft, mostly because nearly every constituency seems to get something. Big business is assured an unending supply of cheap labor. Unions get the bonanza of millions more workers to organize. Bush’s credentials as a “compassionate conservative” are more plausible than ever, and Republican plans to put forward more Latino candidates for political office will now look much less cynical.

Republicans are seen as reaching out, not just to Latinos but to the moderate white voters Bush will need in the fall. These are people whose voting patterns reflect a feelings-based liberalism and a conviction that Republicans are almost always too harsh and negative. Conservatives get assurance, however vague, that some sort of checks against illegal immigration will take hold and that Bush’s amnesty-like guest-worker plan is not really another amnesty.

Major newspapers quickly stressed that the only loose end is that Bush now has to “placate” his conservative base. The implication is that those opposed to massive illegal immigration are a small and backward minority. This is not the case. Polls show lopsided majorities of Americans want immigration reform and want illegal immigration controlled. A 2002 Zogby poll showed that 68 percent of Americans are so anxious about illegal immigration that they want to deploy troops along the border. But on hot-button social issues, Bush has a history of ignoring majorities and abandoning his base, and of backing the position of small but powerful and largely Democratic elites.

Obviously, the White House thinks there is more hay to be made by adopting the elite position that illegals must be “normalized” and treated like legal immigrants who played by the rules and waited their turn. Writing in The Washington Times, Stephen Dinan points out that 60 percent of Americans believe current immigration levels are a “critical threat to the vital interests of the United States,” while only 14 percent of government officials, business leaders and journalists think so.

The elite consensus makes it unlikely that the negative effects of guest-worker normalization will get much press attention. This is particularly so because the White House has left so much of Bush’s plan vague. The president gets credit for reaching out to protect a vulnerable group now, but the details and costs will appear much later.

We can start to estimate costs now. Despite the White House’s careful aversion to the “A” word, granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants is a form of amnesty. It will further corrode faith in government by granting special concessions to those who broke the law to get here. And it will send the same message as previous amnesties: If you can make it over the border, you will eventually be granted legal recognition.

Another byproduct will be lower wages for unskilled workers, both immigrants and natives. American-born blacks will pay a high price for the lowering of wages due to the regularization of illegal immigrants. So will many immigrants. Harvard’s George Borjas, himself an immigrant, reports that in 1970, foreign-born workers earned as much as American-born workers, but by 1998 male immigrants typically earned only 77 percent of what natives earned. What will be the gap after the Bush immigration package sails through?

Writing when Bush first proposed his Mexican initiative in 2001, sociologist Christopher Jencks said the highest price might be paid by children of the new Latino immigrants, who will very likely earn little more than their parents, perhaps become disillusioned with their new homeland, and harden into a sizable underclass. He raises the specter of a possible Latin-American-style gap in the United States between the rich and the poor.

At some point, the influx of unskilled labor has to be limited to protect fair wages and decent working conditions for all. In the elite view, it is uncompassionate and maybe racist to talk about limiting immigration. But this is a huge, continuous immigration with no end in sight. In 2001, the Mexican Ministry of the Interior reported that even with falling birthrates and increased economic development, mass immigration from Mexico to the United States will continue for at least 30 years. The ministry’s estimate, nearly 400,000 immigrants per year, is likely much too low and takes no account of a guest-worker program.

Government has made a series of awful decisions on immigration and apparently is ready to do it once again, this time with short-term, election-year gains in mind. Letting this plan breeze through Congress would be a drastic mistake.

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