The Contours of a Compromise on Illegal Immigration

The next administration and Congress need to reach a compromise on immigration. The continuing battle on the status of illegal immigrants is leading to enormous political divisions and fueling the identity politics of multiculturalism on the both the left and right.  For me the compromise must reflect four imperatives. First, it should recognize the reality that we cannot deport millions of people without turning ourselves into a temporary police state—harmful not only to illegal aliens but to our citizens. Second, it should make sure there is a substantial penalty for those who broke the law.  Third, the compromise must secure the border of the United States against further such immigration on a massive scale and contain a trigger to verify that security has taken place before those who broke the law benefit from the compromise. Fourth, the compromise should make it easier for highly skilled immigrants to come to the nation, because welcoming more such immigrants will benefit America, not least by continuing our tradition of assimilating talent from overseas.

First, ultimately the compromise will have to provide a legalized status to many aliens who entered illegally so long as they have not violated other laws. Catching all those who have come here illegally is impractical.  It would also require a law enforcement presence so heavy as to affect adversely many law abiding citizens, particularly those who share the ethnicity of immigrants who have come here illegally. Moreover, since many of those who came here illegally have had children born here who are citizens by virtue of the 14th amendment, mass deportations would result in the tearing asunder of children from parents.

Second, the legislation should make it clear that coming into America illegally was wrong.  Fines will not prove adequate to make this point either expressively or practically. If fines are too low, they are a slap on the wrist. If they are too high, many, if not most, will simply not pay, and we will be back to the problem of regularizing their status.  The best expressive punishment is to make it clear that while those who came to the United States illegally as adults can live and work here legally, they cannot become American citizens. Nor can they bring in other extended family members by virtue of their legalized status.

The one exception may be aliens who came here as children, because they are not at fault for violating the law. Thus, they should be able to become citizens, assuming they pass tests for citizenship that are a proxy for assimilation, including mastery of the English language.  But even they should not be able to bring in other family members lest  the benefit  families that entered the United States illegally.

Third, the legislation must prevent more large scale illegal immigration. I leave to experts to identify the content of those provisions: they would probably be mixture of stronger border controls (likely using more advanced technology than building a wall!), and strong requirements of verification for employment and penalties for evading such verification. The legislation would have to include benchmarks to be met before those who immigrated illegal could reap the benefits of the law.

Finally, the compromise should make legal immigration easier in some important respects. For instance, it should welcome to America those who have gotten advanced degrees in the United States or otherwise demonstrate talent.   Such immigrants will surely assimilate rapidly and add to the public fisc. Over time their contributions will greatly contribute to economic growth—the precondition of solving many of our social problems.