A Few Thoughts on Immigration Reform (R.I.P.)

A Few Thoughts on Immigration Reform (R.I.P.)

The chance for major immigration reform during this session of Congress has apparently passed, according to this Reuters item here and an editorial in yesterday’s Times. Although I teach and write in immigration law, I have found this year’s high-profile debate on the subject pretty unedifying.

This is in part because it has been mostly about politics rather than law. The politics may be unpredictable, with positions that cut deeply across party lines, but they are also enveloped in unreality – the unreality of controlling immigration. As Tamar Jacoby (a perceptive centrist in an area that could use quite a few more) points out in a recent Washington Post column, it’s rather like Prohibition. Writing in the January-February 2003 issue of Foreign Affairs, Jagdish Bhagwati observes that “the ability to control migration has shrunk as the desire to do so has increased. The reality is that borders are beyond control and little can be done to really cut down on immigration. The societies of developed countries will simply not allow it,” in the face of immigrant rights activism and ethnic politics (to which one might add economic imperatives, as reflected in the Wall Street Journal’s position on the issue).

The idea that illegal immigration is going to be shut down by some bold legislative stroke or grand bargain is fiction. And yet that assumption seems to underlie most of the policy positions on immigration, whether they provide for amnesty or not.

Not that I have an answer. Open borders is morally appealing, but that’s obviously not going to be politically plausible anytime soon — and in that way it’s not like Prohibition, which of course was simply repealed. (It’s also unlike Prohibition insofar as it has created a huge population of legally subordinated individuals, a caste-generating regime that defies consensus notions of liberal equality.) That leaves the “managing migration” approach, with guest workers programs at their center. But that option hasn’t had much success in recent times, either, at least not insofar as it assumes that such workers really will go home once their legal gigs here are up. Perhaps any reasonable deal which legalizes a large number of undocumented is the best one can hope for, to be repeated as necessary into the future. If guest workers end up staying, we can deal with that problem later, too.

In the meantime, I’m amazed by the how some progressives line up against immigration and immigrants. Here’s Mickey Kaus observing that Mexican immigrants have “non-crazy grounds for challenging the very constitution of the U.S. within its current borders,” by virtue of their long-ago sovereignty over the American southwest. Even more incendiary is this column in the Atlantic from Jack Beatty, an otherwise reasonable person who apparently also buys into the specter of a “reconquista” in pretty much the same terms as we hear it from the out-of-the-mainstream Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (check out this scare piece on “Chicano Nationalism, Revanchism, and the Aztlan Myth“). Samuel Huntington’s book, “Who Are We,” paints an similarly unconvincing picture of cultural decline brought on by Mexican immigration (although the book is quite good on theories of national identity apart from the particularities of this American moment).

The problem with all of these arguments is that whatever Mexico and Mexicans stand for, it’s not that different from where the existing community of Americans is; and to the extent that they are different (the fact that they speak Spanish, obviously, or that they are newcomers to democratic politics), their presence just doesn’t pose that much of a real threat. They’re not here to conquer, they’re here to make a better life for themselves.

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As a resident of Queens, NY, which has a very high immigrant [both legal and illegal] population, I find your statement “open borders is morally appealing” dumbfounding. Morally appealing? In what world? Certainly not this one, because as we can vividly see being played out in Lebanon, control of one’s sovereignty and a firm control over one’s borders can become a life and death matter.

Tamar Jacoby’s arguments are hardly centrist, and indeed her own employer, the Manhattan Institute, has basically disavowed her positions on the topic. See June Issue of City Journal at http://www.city-journal.org.


As a resident and citizen of the United States of America, I found this post informative and insightful. And unlike C. above, I agree with virtually everything said here. Illegal immigration will only noticeably decline when the economies of the host countries make significant advances that benefit the poor, and of course the U.S. and other G-8 countries, together with the powerful multilateral economic institutions they support (the IMF, World Bank and WTO most conspicuously), have no small role in determining whether or not such advances will occur…. Racism, overt and otherwise, rears its ugly head here, alongside fears of lost privilege and affluence that may accompany placing more seats at the table of abundance.


I would be interested in why you suggest that our society will not allow us to stop illegal immigration. If anything I think the immigration lobby has been losing support recently; most people would like to see a fence built on the border, and few are bothered by using soldiers to help out the border patrol. The bill passed by the House would effectively take the measures needed to stem the massive tide of illegal immigrants; given some Senate support, it can easily become law – and if anything the public is becoming more, not less, hostile to illegal immigration.


Seamus, states “illegal immigration will only noticeably decline when the economies of the host countries make significant advances that benefit the poor….” With all due respect, illegal immigration will decline when countries decide to enforce laws against employers who hire people here illegally, as has been demonstrably shown in those jurisdictions that in fact do so, and when corrupt latin american governments decide the safety value of offloading their poor to the U.S. is no longer viable.

Your additional statement that “[r]acism, overt and otherwise, rears its ugly head here,” is sheer demagogery. While no doubt there are some racists in any ethnic group (e.g., La Raza anyone?) most mainstreams opponents of U.S. illegal immigration would maintain their position if there were 12 million relatively unskilled, uneducated Germans here, rather than people from latin america.

Finally, as for “fears of lost … affluence that may accompany placing more seats at the table of abundance” you are partially correct. I have absolutely no desire to shortchange my own family for the “honor” of paying additional taxes to feed, clothe and medicated 12 million illegals and their extended families.


No time for an extensive debate with Cassandra, but I’ll briefly address the question of taxes: As Shikha Dalmia has explained, ‘politicians ought to set the record straight: Illegals are not milking the government. If anything, it is the other way around.’ As a result of IRS changes, individuals can file income tax returns without Social Security numbers, the agency providing identification numbers in their place. As a result, it is estimated that close to 8 million of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants file personal income taxes, thereby ‘contributing billions to federal coffers.’ And those illegal immigrants not self-employed, have Social Security and Medicare taxes withheld from their paychecks: ‘Since undocumented workers have only fake numbers, they’ll never be able to collect the benefits these taxes are meant to pay for.’ And of course all illegal immigrants pay sales and other non-federal taxes. And what is more, ‘The non-partisan National Research Council found that when the taxes paid by the children of low-skilled immigrant families–most of whom are illegal–are factored in, they contribute on average $80,000 more to federal coffers than they consume.’ Readers might be interested in a short but informative article by Michael Powell that appeared in… Read more »


Well, reasonable minds can disagree, and I certainly disagree with Seamus as to the fiscal and tax implications of illegal aliens.

Likewise I have no time for an extensive debate, but I will point interested readers to the facts that a large percentage of federal and state prisoners in border states are illegal aliens, at significant taxpayer expense. Similarly a large percentage of student growth in public schools are due to the children of illegal aliens (who admittedly may themselves be U.S. citizens), subsisting on real property and school board taxes — neither of which illegal aliens pay.

Also, I find Seamus’ quote that “it is estimated that close to 8 million of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants file personal income taxes” frankly incredulous and will check on the methodology of his NRC report quoted.

Lastly, here’s two additional articles:

Steven Malanga

How Unskilled Immigrants Hurt Our Economy

A handful of industries get low-cost labor, and the taxpayers foot the bill.

Heather Mac Donald

Seeing Today’s Immigrants Straight

Advocates of “comprehensive immigration reform” let ideology blind them to the dispiriting facts on the ground.