A Publication of the University of Pennsylvania Government and Politics Association
By Joe Kiernan
America does immigration well. In fact, I would contend that the United States’ style of immigration is the finest in the world. However, our governmental institutions have conveniently circumvented this critical issue, recasting it as a political football that does a disservice to immigrants and to the country as a whole. Libertarians harangue about the economic opportunities of unrestricted immigration, but they ignore the importance of culture and the state. The Left appeals to emotion which fundamentally undermines the validity of their arguments and ignores legal precedent and policy. And, some conservatives have capsized reform efforts by letting extremist voices, tinged with unsavory bias, hijack the discussion. The United States is one of the very few successful multicultural, multiethnic states in the world. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently conceded that multiculturalism had failed in the UK. Across Europe, immigrants face nation-states built on common, static ethnic and cultural identities. The result is segregation, ghettoization, and radicalization of immigrants and natives (Hungary’s Jobbik is a clear example). We are not Europe, and the question should not be whether or not we should have immigration, because it is integral to our national identity, but how do we conduct it in the best manner? The current laws are not working; we need major change. To address concerns from the Left and the Right, and to build a better model for the country, I contend that immigration reform must address three primary issues: ease of entry, sovereignty and security, and integration.
People come to America to build better lives. Most are seeking economic advancement for themselves and their families, whether they are attending Penn on student visas or working on farms in the Southwest. They recognize the exceptional opportunity of America and want to share and contribute. If this isn’t indicative of the existence of the ‘American Dream’ then I don’t know what is. Currently, the U.S. government caps our annual rate of immigration at 675,000 permanent immigrants. Of this number, 480,000 are allocated to family-based immigration, 140,000 are allocated to permanent employment-based immigration, 70,000 are allocated to refugee/asylum immigration, and 50,000 allocated to the Diversity Visa Program. This does not include international students or those on temporary work visas. To satisfy demand in an increasingly globalized world, the government should raise this cap to 1 million per annum. Furthermore, I propose a new system for student visas. If students earn a degree at an American university, they should be fast-tracked for citizenship. Clearly, they are sufficiently proficient in English to function successfully in a college environment. Theretfore, they should be prioritized for citizenship.
What about the 11 million-plus unauthorized immigrants living here now? First of all, contrary to public conception, many unauthorized immigrants entered the United States legally, but have stayed illegally. According to the Center for Immigration studies, anywhere from 27 to 57 percent of unauthorized aliens are visa overstays. Some political figures have pushed for amnesty while those on the opposite end of the spectrum aim for mass deportation. Both of these solutions are not feasible; we need to implement a reasonable path to citizenship for those living here while ensuring that illegal immigration comes to an end. The balance between incentivizing documentation while not incentivizing further illegal immigration is essential. Providing temporary amnesty in exchange for documentation should be the first step. If unauthorized immigrants are not encouraged to register their status, then it will be impossible to achieve any substantive progress. Once documentation has been established, the unauthorized immigrants would receive an intermediary status in which they are not citizens, but resident aliens with temporary amnesty. This will allow the children of unauthorized immigrants to attend public schools and for families to use essential services such as obtaining drivers’ licenses and contribute economically without the fear of deportation and family separation. Furthermore, these individuals would be subject to local, state, and federal taxes. After a period of time, these individuals would then be free and encouraged to pursue citizenship.
So how would we incentivize more legal immigration? Taxes. One of the complaints about amnesty is that the unauthorized immigrants are unjustly straining the government’s finances. There is a way to ameliorate this problem while also encouraging documentation and citizenship. Just as many argue about decriminalizing minor drug offenses and transitioning away from prison sentences and towards fines, I believe that taxes could be a creative way to reduce deportations. If someone enters the naturalization process described above, they would be subject to an additional tax on their income to compensate for the cost of border enforcement, English language classes, and naturalization services. The CBO and other expert bodies could determine a suitable rate that would not precipitate undue harm upon the recently documented, but would provide a sufficient disincentive to pursue illegal means of entry. The size of the tax could be tacked to the amount of time spent unauthorized in the United States to make documentation more lucrative. How would this money be used? The aim would be to streamline legal channels of entry and sustain the projected costs for the expansion of permanent immigration mentioned earlier. A tax of this variety would be a far more ethical and efficacious method of reducing illegal immigration while preventing deportation, incentivizing documentation, and raising revenues to improve and expand the current legal immigration framework.
The fact that the world’s arguably most influential country cannot secure its own borders does a disservice to the American public. Not only is illegal immigration a blatant violation of United States sovereignty, but it undermines national security efforts and damages our relationship with the Mexican government. The illegality of these border crossing creates unfortunate associations between immigrants seeking economic opportunity and criminal narcotics and arms trafficking. This harms the United States, Mexico, the immigrants, and it inhibits bilateral efforts to crack down on drug cartels. However, I firmly believe that by using creative methods for a path to citizenship, increasing border security, cooperating with Mexico, and easing and expanding our legal immigration framework, we can significantly stymie illegal entries. As President Peña Nieto’s administration fights narco-insurgency and struggles to limit illegal immigration from Central America, the United States must show good faith and a willingness to recommit to immigration reform. According to The New York Times, many immigrants are now coming from Central America and willingly turning themselves in when they cross into the United States. They are aware that US immigration processing and detention facilities are far over capacity and many are temporarily released. This inability to enforce has attracted many to attempt the border crossing along the Rio Grande in southern Texas. The need for change is clear.
In terms of enforcement policy, focus on prosecution and control should be directed away from unauthorized immigrants and towards American employers. Employers, who are not complying with E-Verify, are enticing people to immigrate illegally while avoiding federal labor standards and regulations like minimum wage. This creates a shadow economy that allows for rampant abuse of unauthorized immigrants because their fear of deportation prevents them from contacting authorities about illegal employer practices. This is applicable to temporary work visa holders as well. Securing the border is a crucial part of this equation. Not only has a permeable border allowed for illegal immigration, but it has stoked arms and narcotics trafficking which is currently the cause of havoc throughout Mexico. We should also crack down on the smugglers who extort immigrants and circumvent US law. Boosting security, hiring more guards and expanding checkpoints is part of this, but so is ensuring that our bureaucracy can handle a larger influx of immigrants as mentioned previously.
Immigration is as much a cultural issue as it is a policy issue. America has a long tradition of highly-successful immigrant integration. Learning English is a component of this. Lack of fluency in English disadvantages immigrants from participation in the economy, it weakens the essential unity upon which the country relies, and it discourages cultural mixing. Funding more ESL programs and specialized programs for ESL students in public schools will be a crucial method for attaining more integration and equitable educational experience. Europe is an example of failed integration measures that have bifurcated their society. The banlieues in France are key examples of the consequences of failure to integrate and have become centers of crime and stagnation. The beauty of the American model is bringing cultural elements and diversity from abroad and contributing this to society. Governor Rick Perry’s proposal to provide undocumented Texans with in-state tuition is not only the fair decision, but the economically prudent one. Immigrants are motivated. Undocumented immigrants risked their lives and probably sacrificed much of their meager savings to come to this country for economic opportunity. We should let them contribute to our society and add to our diversity.
The United States is a unique country. It is a testament to its exceptionality that so many from such diverse backgrounds seek to build a life here for themselves and their families. We can do immigration better; we can have the most effective system in the world. By expanding quotas, fast-tracking international students, providing a path to citizenship, and encouraging integration and economic and social contribution, we can allow more talent to flow into our nation. This does not mean that we will simply open the borders. By taxing, rather than deporting, previously undocumented immigrants we can incentivize good immigration practices while allowing these newest of Americans to remain here and help fund the programs that will encourage more legal entry. We must crack down on and prosecute the real offenders: the smugglers, the cartels, and the crooked employers. Not only are they undermining national security and the effectiveness of our borders, but they are exploiting and abusing the immigrants they are claiming to ‘help.’ Finally, the best method of reducing illegal immigration is to make legal immigration easier and more attractive. It’s more than encouraging new labor sources, good immigration policy is about building upon America’s greatest strength: its diversity and fluidity. Initiating strong, efficacious, and fair immigration policies is not only an economic issue, but a reaffirmation of belief in the system which built this country and continues to enrich our nation and its culture.