Enforceable, Sustainable, Compassionate
On immigration, it's time to get real.
BY MICHAEL R. BLOOMBERG
Wednesday, May 24, 2006, Wall Street Journal
In every decade there is a critical domestic issue that shapes our political life for decades to come. In the 1960s, it was civil rights; in the 1970s, the Watergate crisis; in the 1980s, crime and drugs; and in the 1990s, welfare dependency. Today, it is immigration.
In New York City, 500,000 of our more than three million immigrants are here illegally. Although they broke the law by illegally crossing our borders or overstaying their visas, our economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported. The same holds true for the nation. Yet in a post-9/11 world, the federal government can no longer wink at illegal immigration. To ensure our national security and keep our economy growing, it is essential that immigration reform embody four key principles:
1. Reduce Incentives. As a business owner, I know the absurdity of our existing immigration regulations all too well. Employers are required to check the status of all job applicants, but not to do anything more than eyeball their documents. In fact, hypocritically, employers are not even permitted to ask probing questions. As a result, fake "green cards" are dime a dozen, and illegal immigrants can easily qualify for jobs.
It is encouraging that a growing number of Democrats and Republicans in Congress recognize the need for a federal database that will allow employers to verify the status of those applying for jobs. The database must identify all job applicants in America based on documentation that cannot be corrupted--fingerprints or DNA, for example. (Social Security cards are just too easy to falsify.) In addition, there must be stiff penalties for businesses that fail to conduct checks or ignore their results. Holding businesses accountable is the crucial step, because it is the only way to reduce the incentive to come here illegally. Requiring employers to verify citizenship status was the promise of the 1986 immigration reform law, but it was an empty promise, never enforced by a federal government pressured to look the other way while workers were exploited. This allowed illegal immigration levels to overwhelm our border control. We must not make the same mistake again.
2. Increase Lawful Opportunity. Baby boomers are starting to retire, America's birthrate continues to slow, and our visa quotas remain too low. As a result, we need more workers than we have, and that's exactly why so many people want to come here. In most cases, those here illegally are filling low-wage, low-skill jobs that Americans do not want. Recent studies put the lie to the old argument that immigrants take jobs away from native-born Americans and significantly depress wages. Global economic forces are responsible for the declines in the real wages of unskilled workers and occur regardless of whether immigrants are present in a community. Moreover, any slight wage decline is more than offset by substantial increases in productivity.
To keep people and businesses investing in America, we need to ensure that we have workers for all types of jobs. That means increasing the number of visas for overseas manual workers, who help provide the essential muscle and elbow grease we need to keep our economy running, as well as the number of visas for immigrant engineers, doctors, scientists and other professionally trained workers--the brains of tomorrow's economy. And it means giving all of them, as well as foreign students, the opportunity to earn permanent status, so they can put their knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit to use for our country. Why shouldn't we reap the benefits of the skills they have obtained here? If we don't allow them in, or we send them home, we will be sending the future of science--and the jobs of tomorrow--with them.
3. Reduce Access. Controlling our borders is a matter of urgent national security. As President Bush recognizes, in some areas, particularly in border towns, additional fencing may be required; in open desert areas, a virtual wall--created through sensors and cameras--will be far more effective. However, even after doubling their numbers, border security guards will remain overwhelmed by the flood of people attempting to enter illegally. Only by embracing the first two principles--reducing incentives and increasing lawful opportunity--will the border security so desired by the House become a manageable task.
4. Get Real. The idea of deporting 11 million people, nearly as many as live in the entire state of Illinois, is pure fantasy. It is physically impossible to carry out, though if it were attempted, it would devastate both families and our economy. The Senate's tiered approach requiring that some people "report to deport" through guest worker programs--while leaving their spouses, children and mortgages behind--is no less ridiculous. If this approach becomes law, there can be little doubt that the black market for false documentation would remain strong and real enforcement impossible.
There is only one practical solution, and it is a solution that respects the history of our nation: Offer those already here the opportunity to earn permanent status and keep their families together, provided they pay appropriate penalties. For decades, the federal government has tacitly welcomed them into the workforce and collected their income and Social Security taxes, which two-thirds of undocumented workers pay. Now, instead of pointing fingers about the past, let's accept the present for what it is by bringing people out of the shadows, and focus on the future by casting those shadows aside, permanently.
As the debate continues in Washington, it is essential that Congress recognize the need for an immigration policy that is enforceable, sustainable and compassionate--and that enables the American economy to thrive in the 21st century. But if one principle is abandoned, we will be no better off than we were after passage of the 1986 law. A successful solution to our border problems cannot rest on a wall alone; it must be built on a foundation strong enough to support it, and to support our continued economic growth and prosperity.
Mr. Bloomberg is mayor of New York.