The Bush immigration proposal

Josh Marshall has the complete transcript of the background briefing on the new White House immigration proposal.

I’m for anything that regularizes the status of the 8 million, or however many it is, illegal aliens now in the country. We clearly aren’t going to do the enforcement that would be required either to deport them and keep them (or replacements for the same jobs) from coming back, or to make employers actually afraid to hire them, and the disadvantages — especially in the post-9/11 world — of having such a huge population living in the legal shadows are intolerably large.

Yes, anything that regularizes them will in effect reward them for having broken the law. That’s a bad side effect, but not an avoidable one if you want to deal with the underlying problem.

But the proposal, as I understand it, goes beyond what is necessary, in multiple ways:

It extends the amnesty, and the benefit of having broken the law, to employers as well as employees. Under the proposal, a company not currently illegally employing an undocumented worker couldn’t post a job under the new temporary worker program without first showing that no citizen or permanent resident would take the job.

(Of course, this is a little bit incoherent as a standard; whether someone can be found to fill a job depends in part on the wage offered. I can’t believe the new rule is that you can post a systems-analyst job at $6 an hour and bring in someone from India to do it if you can’t find a US-based systems analyst who will take it at that wage, but that’s the logic of “matching willing employers with willing employees.”)

But under the proposal, any job currently being filled by an illegal will be deemed to have “passed the market test” and the employer will automatically be able to keep the previously-illegal employee on, without paying any penalty. Why not impose a big fine — say $15,000 per worker — on the employers, just to remind them not to do it again? I have a lot more sympathy for people who broke the law to find themselves and their children better lives than I do for the companies that hired them just to avoid having to pay decent wages to legal workers.

Moreover, since companies can sponsor their workers for green cards, the illegal employee will in fact get, not just a legal job, but a leg up toward permanent-resident status and eventually citizenship, compared to someone who tried to play this ugly game by its rules.

The alternative would be to say that anyone who worked illegally and gets regularized under the temporary-worker program goes to the back of the green-card line.

Now it’s not clear how much that matters, since it seems likely that the “temporary” status will be extended again and again, and (unlike the current H2B visa program) will be “non-sector-specific” and not tied to any particular job. So the “temporary” workers would in fact probably never have to go home; but at least they wouldn’t jump the law-abiding in the queue for citizenship. (Of course, their children born here are automatically citizens, so we wouldn’t be creating an hereditary class of metics, like the Turks in Germany.)

All in all, then, this looks like a proposal that unnecessarily rewards law-breakers on both sides of the employment transaction and puts downward pressure on wages in the low-skilled labor market, which was already pretty soft the last time I checked. Well, I suppose it wouldn’t really be a Bush Administration policy if it didn’t worsen the income distribution.

Even with that, I’d probably take this package rather than the status quo. But I can imagine (and I hope Democratic candidates will help the country imagine) better alternative packages.

Progress on immigration?

It looks as if a deal is in the works to grant legal status to at least some illegal immigrants: those working in agriculture. The President is prepared to go much further, at least rhetorically, talking of the need for “an immigration policy that helps match any willing employer with any willing employee.”

I’m not actually sure I’d want to go that far: there are presumably lots of people in Guatemala who would be willing to be employed here, and lots of employers who would be happy to pay them the minimum wage. But the principle that our immigration laws need to be sustainably enforceable in the face of market pressures is a crucial one, and (given the political realities limiting enforcement against employers) current policies simply don’t pass that test.

Mickey Kaus suggests (see Friday, December 12) that Howard Dean try to get to Bush’s “right” on the issue: i.e., engage in the restrictionist demagogy of supporting the current laws without saying how they can be enforced, meanwhile keeping a group of several million illegals as an easily exploitable labor force, a socially marginal group, and (due to their lack of valid documents and the mechanics of alien smuggling) a security vulnerability. Kaus suggests that doing so would be helpful in mobilizing African-American voters.

I don’t doubt that immigration restriction is popular among African-Americans, as it is among others who have to compete with immigrants in the labor market. (Which raises the question of why being against immigration is the “right” as opposed to “left” position: if I were on the political right I’d be offended by the notion that the position hostile to the interests of outsiders is automatically associated with my side.)

But I doubt that it’s a powerful voting issue in the black community. And of course any such move would sacrifice the Mexican-American vote, which is growing in size and unfixed in its party affiliation. (Ask Pete Wilson and the Republicans who were once a majority in the California legislature.) No doubt Dean and the rest of the Democrats will decline Kaus’s offer, as they should on both substantive and political grounds.

With any luck, we could wind up with an immigration policy somewhat less restrictive than would be optimal from the viewpoint of those currently in the country — and especially from the viewpoint of low-wage workers — but much better for everyone (except the sleaziest employers) than the mess we have now. That would be very much to Mr. Bush’s credit.