Initial Thoughts on Immigration Reform

On the Arizona immigration bill, a few words — I am a firm opponent, despite my overall desire for better enforcement of federal immigration law. Put simply, I do not trust Arizona police, especially in Maricopa County, with the additional discretion they’ve been given. Sheriff Joe Arpaio already presides over a police department credibly accused of racial profiling — and as reporting by William Finnegan in The New Yorker and Radley Balko in Reason make clear, the criminal justice system in Arizona’s biggest metropolitan area is rife with serious problems that threaten the liberty of citizens and immigrants alike.

Beyond the near inevitability of racial profiling, there is the conventional objection to local police enforcing immigration law: doing so discourages people in immigrant neighborhoods from working with police. Undocumented residents won’t act as witnesses or good Samaritans or report being victimized by crime if calling 911 might well result in their deportation. It is folly to alienate so many residents from police officers who require their cooperation to keep all Arizonans safe.

So what do I propose? After all, illegal immigration is a serious problem: newcomers to America are a benefit to our nation, but the costs they impose on schools, hospitals and other social services are born locally, and folks unlawfully in the country are unlikely to inculcate in their kids the civic habits that are critical to the health of any democratic polity. Arizona’s porous southern border is also troubling given Mexico’s increasingly violent drug trade.

Personally, I’d like to see a path to citizenship for folks already here illegally, and an increase in the number of immigrants able to come here. As a political matter, this can only happen once the southern border is secured — and reluctant as I am to reach this conclusion, I think that’s as it should be: the amnesties of the past have promised better enforcement, but it’s never been delivered, effectively kicking the problem down the road, or even exacerbating it.

On the other hand, I am loath to support better enforcement unaccompanied by the guarantee that once illegal immigration is under control, legal immigration will be expanded. Yes, immigration imposes costs on some Americans, but that has always been the case, and the cost born by the natives in the much poorer America that my ancestors immigrated to were much higher. It doesn’t seem fair to keep newcomers out so that I can pay marginally less in local taxes, or even so that a poor American can earn marginally more at their job.

My proposal:

— A physical wall along the entire Mexican border. I don’t like the symbolism of closing the country to newcomers either, but realistically, the status quo is worse for everyone involved: we’ve got a partial wall that incentivizes border crossings through the most dangerous parts of the desert, and a corruptible, heavily armed border patrol hunting illegal immigrants by day and night. A solid wall would significantly reduce the number of illegal crossers, it couldn’t be corrupted by drug traffickers, it wouldn’t ever abuse illegal immigrants it deters — it is, all things considered, the least bad solution, and it is mere sentimentalism to instead favor the status quo, a partial wall and the symbolism of armed border guards and a deadly desert rather than a tall slab of concrete.

— Automatic increases in legal immigration quotas pegged to every measurable decrease in illegal immigration.

— The auction of lots of visas for high-skilled immigrants, with the profits allocated to jurisdictions that bear the costs of low skill immigrants.

— Pass the DREAM act.

— As I once wrote in regard to immigration policy in Southern California: “Every Southern California jail should verify the legal status of inmates and deport those in the country illegally — it matters little whether illegal immigrants trust their jailers. In Los Angeles County alone, the LA Times estimates that 40,000 illegal immigrants pass through the jails each year (among 170,000 total inmates). Multiply that by Southern California’s five counties over multiple years and countless crimes can be averted. Latino advocacy organizations may object, but they shouldn’t: if these convicts return to their country of origin rather than their ZIP code of residence, law-abiding illegal immigrants will benefit as much as anyone.” This avoids the trouble of having local police enforce immigration law, and gets rid of the profiling problem too since everyone convicted of a crime is checked.

It’s been a long time since I wrote about immigration policy. Maybe I am missing some drawback to these ideas, or social science data demonstrating that some assumption I’ve made is wrong — let me know. I am as yet undecided on how exactly a path to citizenship should work. But the priority should be on transforming people off the books into equal citizens and civic participants. None of this guest worker program nonsense: these are people, not workers, and it is folly to create a second class of non-citizens.