THE WHITE-HOT IMMIGRATION DEBATE may well become one of the most combustible issues in this year’s midterm elections, but here in Texas, it’s really, really old news. Thought you could invigorate the economy by letting in all those foreigners, and now you’re concerned that the newcomers aren’t obeying the laws or assimilating into your culture? Fearful that a porous border threatens your national security? That’s what worried Mexicans back in the 1820’s, as Anglo immigrants poured into Tejas, bringing their rambunctious American ways and suspect values (including a penchant for slavery, which had been outlawed in the interior of Mexico). State officials of Coahuila y Tejas welcomed immigration from the United States, but the hard-liners in Mexico City banned it, Texans revolted, and the rest is our history.
And it’s a history we should keep in mind as our leaders in Washington try to tackle the half a million or so immigrants, most of them Mexicans, who enter this country without authorization each year, swelling a population of about 11 million illegal residents. The House has already passed a get-tough bill that would fence off about a third of this country’s two-thousand-mile southern border, while the Senate is juggling proposals that range from the aggressive—our own John Cornyn and Arizona’s Jon Kyl want to hire 10,000 more Border Patrol agents and crack down on businesses that hire unauthorized workers—to the more lenient and broadly supported “guest worker” plan sponsored by Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain. President Bush also has a plan, similar to Kennedy-McCain, allowing hundreds of thousands of Mexican workers to enter each year on temporary visas.
But if we’re waiting for a political solution, history isn’t on our side. It’s not just that the president’s guest-worker proposal has angered hard-liners in his own party; it’s that whatever we end up with—if anything—will come with a track record of failure. The guest-worker plans are remarkably similar in most features to the Bracero program that began with World War II manpower shortages and was junked more than forty years ago. Though it provided legal entry for hundreds of thousands of temporary farmworkers annually, the Bracero program only contributed to a flood of illegal workers, in large part because Texas growers balked at the 30-cent-an-hour Bracero wage. In 1952 Congress rewarded the scofflaws with the “Texas proviso,” which shielded employers of illegal immigrants from criminal penalties. The Reagan administration’s 1986 version of “comprehensive” immigration reform called for beefed-up border security and an end to the Texas proviso, imposing fines on employers of unauthorized workers. As a result, the number of Border Patrol agents has been tripled over the past two decades, with absolutely no effect. And those employer sanctions? They’re a mirage. In 2004 exactly three U.S. companies were threatened with fines for hiring unauthorized workers. The plans now on the table simply promise that Washington will repackage the same old policies and make sure that they fail again.
There’s a reason why immigration policy never works: It’s hard to find solutions when we aren’t, as a nation, sure about the problem. While polls show an increasing conviction among the public that immigrants, both legal and illegal, hurt the economy, there is broad disagreement among economists over the real impact of even the large number of low-skilled, poorly educated illegal immigrants. If there’s a consensus, it’s that illegal immigrants take a single-digit percentage of the jobs that might otherwise go to native-born high school dropouts, while also marginally depressing wages among the same group—a problem that might be better addressed by making sure that more native-born kids finish high school.
On the other hand, recently retired Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan observed that our large immigrant workforce has played an essential role in restraining inflation, by lowering the costs of basic goods and services, which itself cushions the shock to low-income Americans. That illegal immigrants are a net burden on the welfare system is also a popular belief, but the 1996 welfare reform bill excluded even legal immigrants from most federal assistance. Illegal immigrants pay billions each year in Social Security taxes for which they receive no benefits, and we often overlook the state and local sales taxes, fees, and property taxes (in the form of rent) they also pay. Many economists now forecast that in the long run, all those immigrants will compensate for the declining birthrate among the rest of us, not only taking up the slack as baby boomers retire but also playing an essential role in funding boomers’ Social Security benefits.
But even if we did the math, we’d still have an immigration debate. That’s because it really isn’t the economy, stupid; it’s about the culture. After September 11, border security became a national issue. Of the more than 100,000 OTMs (“other than Mexicans”) who were caught crossing over with the rest of the undocumented traffic last year, some were from terror-sponsoring states. But the most thoughtful hard-liners, like Cornyn, believe the answer is mobile, high-tech law enforcement and actually detaining the OTMs we already catch, not the House’s feel-good but easily outflanked Maginot Line. Local law-and-order issues ranging from uninsured drivers to the rampant trade in forged Social Security cards also contribute to what conservative columnist David Brooks recently characterized as a “subculture of criminality.” But according to Social Security Administration records, hundreds of thousands of American employers have been only too happy to hire workers with patently phony cards, and our suburbs are full of law-abiding citizens who don’t even bother to inquire about the documentation of their housekeepers, gardeners, or, increasingly, the skilled tradesmen who build and repair their houses. That criminal subculture includes an awful lot of us.
The crime many people are really worried about is national identity theft. We might be a nation of immigrants, but we’ve always had a last-one-in-bar-the-door attitude about the next immigrant wave. Even before we became a nation, it was the Germans who threatened to overwhelm the English-speaking colonists, as Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin noted in