Just in time for the presidential election, the Obama administration has issued a directive cutting back on enforcement of immigration law. To the extent that this order can survive a challenge in the Supreme Court, it is something Obama could have achieved with the stroke of a pen at any moment since August 9, 2009 (when the Court last changed membership), if not since the beginning of his term. That he waited until now is yet another of myriad examples of our current president’s political cynicism. This move is seen by many as an attempt to undercut legislation sponsored by Florida Senator Marco Rubio to provide a more humane policy for dealing with the millions, yes millions, of children who were brought to our country by their parents in contravention of the immigration laws.
That Obama waited until now to issue the order is a mark of his contempt for the electorate in general, and of Hispanics in particular, but that such a cynical move is likely to confer political advantage on Obama is at least partly the responsibility of Republicans. Republicans have expressed outrage that undocumented immigrants are working within our borders. Yet all of us, whether or not we want to be, are economically connected to the chain of hypocrisy that is current U.S. immigration policy. While we are delighted to take advantage of the lower prices made possible by illegal workers willing to toil for less than the minimum wage, we are incensed that these workers violate our laws. Nonetheless, we still seek the lowest cost for the goods and services we buy, even knowing that in many cases the cheaper prices are a byproduct of the use of undocumented workers.
But doesn't the blame for this situation rest solely with those who chose to enter our country illegally? No, it does not. Without a market for their services north of the border, no one would attempt a dangerous and costly illegal passage across the U.S. frontier. Without willing accomplices on this side of the border, illegal immigration would sputter to a halt. That it has not done so suggests a selectiveness about enforcement of our laws, and a certain myopia in our outrage at their having been broken. When a municipality becomes serious about enforcing the laws against prostitution, it begins arresting “clients” as well as prostitutes. Likewise, when we become serious about limiting the importation of illegal drugs we pursue the end users, and not just the smugglers and pushers. Why not do the same with those who employ undocumented immigrants? The answer is a simple one. When stricter border measures are put in place the usual public reaction is one of indignation—border holdups disrupt supply chains, block workers from commuting to jobs across the border, and slow the economy of border cities.
Effective enforcement of current immigration laws would likely result in higher domestic wages for low-skilled workers, but lower incomes in general. Why? Because undocumented immigrants are disproportionately willing to take low-paid disagreeable jobs. If those immigrants were to leave the country, wages for those jobs would rise, and the equilibrium number of people taking the jobs would fall, leaving low-skilled workers with higher wages, and all of us with less output.
While it is easy to focus penalties on undocumented workers, moral responsibility for their trespasses is much more widely shared. When it is time to enjoy lower wages for unskilled workers, and the lower prices these wages make possible, we are almost all happy to share in the benefits. (Low-skilled U.S. citizens are an unhappy exception to this otherwise universal tendency.) However, when it is time to throw stones at those who have violated our laws, our anger is focused almost exclusively on the immigrants, the weakest participants in the economic web of undocumented migration, and the least able to defend themselves. Tacit support for illegal immigration spans the political spectrum. Republicans rally to defend commerce when there is a serious threat to undocumented immigration, while Democrats see each undocumented worker as a future source of electoral support. Moreover, the workers with whom the immigrants compete most directly are not unionized, limiting the adverse impact of immigration on a core constituency of the Democratic Party—if anything, the presence of undocumented workers may increase the union relative wage differential, making workers more eager to join a union. (Yet another consideration is that the low-wage U.S. citizens who are most adversely affected by undocumented immigration are already core supporters of the Democrats, unlikely to shift allegiances over changes in immigration policy.)
What does this mean for policy? On the moral plane it means that we share responsibility for a status quo in which millions, and perhaps tens of millions, of those living within our borders are here in contravention of our laws. In many cases these people have been living in our midst for decades. We are collectively complicit in this state of affairs—had the world's premier military power wanted to control its border and prevent undocumented crossings, it would have long since done so. On moral grounds we share responsibility for violating our laws with the people we have paid to break them. We ought to share in the costs of resolving the situation.
On political grounds, blaming undocumented workers for the current immigration debacle with Mexico tends to alienate Hispanics. Make no mistake, immigrants from the Hispanophone world arrive as Mexicans, Cubans, and Salvadorians, but their children are increasingly assimilated as “Hispanics,” and a party that is perceived as opposing their interests will not enjoy their support. Thus far the Democrats have hugged the Republicans' left flank on the issue, being just a bit softer on concrete policy, and delivering much more pro-immigrant rhetoric when it suits them. The status quo favors the Democrats and hurts the Republicans. As the Hispanic voting bloc grows, the benefits and costs of this dichotomy will weigh more heavily.
Thus on purely cynical political grounds it suits the Democrats to maintain the status quo, issuing executive memos and making accusations of anti-Hispanic bias, while eschewing meaningful reform. Reform presents Democrats with a moral dilemma—whether to pursue their political interest or to do the right thing. I wish their consciences good luck. Likewise, out of purely cynical political considerations (as well as on more dignified moral grounds) it suits Republicans to reform the dysfunctional status quo. For Republicans there is no conflict here; Machiavelli and Christ would both have us support reform.
What would effective reform look like? First we need to recognize that we are in a long-term relationship with the migrants and with their home countries. Just as we have arranged for the relatively unencumbered movement of goods across borders, so too we should allow for the relatively free movement of labor. We should establish a permissive guest worker program that allows foreign citizens to come to our country to work. Their legal presence here will make them readier to use emergency services when they encounter crime, fire, and medical emergencies, and licensed foreign workers will be more willing to report workplace safety issues. What about long-term connections between guest workers and the United States? A sensible immigration plan would allow workers to renew their permits from within the United States, and it would allow them to apply for citizenship without having to return home.
Why not instead ban further entry by foreign workers? This would hobble our economy in a very competitive world, it would drive up domestic prices, and for most people it would also reduce incomes. Of course, the status quo has already shown us that attempting such a policy will actually result in a large population of undocumented workers, with all of the complications that this entails.
What about guest workers' families? By making it easier to cross the border, we would actually make it easier for guest workers to leave their families behind, in the home country, where living costs are cheaper, and then make regular visits home. The status quo, with its high costs of crossing the border, creates a perverse incentive for workers who must choose between not seeing their children grow up and bringing them into the country illegally. Moreover, a great number of economic immigrants seek to earn enough money to return home to buy a house or to start a small business—for many the goal is not to become U.S. citizens.
Whether reform ought to allow guest workers' families into the country is somewhat separable from the core elements of necessary reform. While the economic arguments for the reforms sketched in the preceding paragraphs are compelling, how we respond to workers' desire to bring their families along is a humanitarian question. We ought to make the entry of workers' families a part of the permit application process. When we do choose to allow families to enter we need to recognize the costs they impose on local government, and to make transfers. While having guest workers within our borders confers an overall economic benefit, the costs of local services for those workers are concentrated, and the U.S. government should provide some economic assistance to affected communities in defraying those expenses. Given the economic benefits of having guest workers in our midst, this cross-subsidy could be readily paid for out of the resulting increase in tax revenues. Personally, I would favor a permissive policy toward the families of guest workers, but this is a question that can be resolved somewhat separately from the other details of a program of guest-worker permits.
What about the “pathway to citizenship”? People who are already living here are doing so with the complicity of our government and society. They did not create the status quo by themselves, and they should not be left alone to pay the costs of a transition to a more sensible immigration policy. Those currently working within our borders should be “legalized,” and given temporary, and renewable, work permits. This means forgiveness for the people who violated our laws, and for the people who paid them to do so, also known as “us.” This would provide a dignified ending to an otherwise ugly chapter in our history. As for children who have grown up in our midst, they should be allowed to remain in what has become their country. Unlike their parents, and unlike the rest of us who happily bought the cheaper goods and services made possible by undocumented foreign workers, the children of those workers share none of the blame for a status quo they did not choose. Comprehensive immigration reform should happen now, and it should come in the form of a law.
John B. Londregan is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.