Bush's conservative immigration policy

Over the last several days, I have heard a lot of complaining from the right about Bush’s new immigration policy. Some of it has been quite shrill and I daresay anti-immigrant. I think it is good conservative policy. I will explain below.

There are several arguments from the right against this policy, but I will attempt to sum them up. First, it is amnesty, despite what the President says, and will encourage a new wave of illegal immigration. Second, counter to what most people think, we don’t need this cheap labor and it drives down the wages and takes jobs away from hard working Americans. Third, telling a bunch of foreigners, “Y’All come!” is counterproductive to our security efforts along the border. Fourth, Vicente Fox has hardly been in our corner lately, so why should we do him any favors? Finally, it’s not good politically for Republicans or for Bush.

Amnesty

It is true that saying this is something other than amnesty is a bit of a stretch, but it is substantially different than the amnesty program of 1986 in that it is combined with other sweeping reform. Amnesty is criticised because it rewards those that broke the law and invites those that have not broken the law to do so. If you can just stay in the country long enough, the reasoning goes, you will eventually be legal, no matter how you got here.

But criticizing the amnesty aspect out of the context of the guest-worker program is nonsense. If the guest-worker program is OK, then anything other than amnesty would be ridiculous. Take this analogy. Suppose we were to legalize marijuana. Let's not argue the merits of that, but just take it as a fact on the ground. There would be millions of people in this country who had smoked marijuana and gotten away with it. They would have a de facto amnesty. We probably could legally still prosecute those that had smoked marijuana while it was legal, but would this server the interest of justice? Hardly.

Similarly, if we create a law that says basically that you can come to this country legally as long as you have a job, would it be any great travesty if we simply gave the same opportunity to those who were already here?

The second part of this complaint is that it encourages others to break the law, but again this has to be taken in context. There are some legitimate reasons for foreigners to be here: Family (married to an American), tourism (including visiting family and such), conducting legitimate business, education, and work. All of these things can be used to legally enter the country for nefarious purposes, but what of the reverse? Do people sneak into the country to get married? Of course not. I can't imagine any problem being absolutely zero, but I would have to guess that illegal tourism is pretty close. The same goes for people illegally entering the country to conduct otherwise legitimate business. It is very hard for a student to actually attend university without a legitimate student visa. That leaves work.

Millions enter the country illegally to work. Work is the demand on the illegal immigrant supply. To suggest that an amnesty will encourage others to break the law implies that it would be more desireable to break the law than it was before. In fact, it will be less desireable, since the guest-worker program does not apply only to those that are already here, but to anyone who wants to enter. If you want to come to America to work, there would be an easy and legal way to do it. How would that drive up illegal immigration?

One can argue that it will drive up immigration in general, but it will drive up the number of productive immigrants. I say, the more productive people in the country, the better.

We Don't Need 'Em

Mark Krikorian at National Review says that all this talk about jobs that Americans won't do is a bunch of hooey. He claims, "there is simply no economic reason to import foreign workers," and he makes some points that don't sound very conservative to me. If, for some reason, the cheap illegal immigrants all disappeared, we would make due. Americans would do those jobs if only the wages were higher and it would spur innovation to allow us to produce more efficiently.

I have long agreed that Americans would do the jobs that illegal immigrants do if the wages were higher. There is nothing inherently 'Mexican' or 'un-American' about manual unskilled labor. However, I don't agree with his point about what a non-issue those higher wages would be. "Agricultural economist Philip Martin has pointed out that labor accounts for only about ten percent of the retail price of a head of lettuce, for instance, so even doubling the wages of pickers would have little noticeable effect on consumers." I guess that's true if you would not notice the price going up by ten percent. (If wages count for 10 cents of the dollar you spend, and they go up to twenty cents, that would drive the price up to $1.10.) Now, on a head of iceburg lettuce, it's true that most people would not miss the extra dime, but this is exactly the argument for raising sales tax another percent or raising your income tax "just a little". If you spend $200 a week on groceries for your family, you very well might notice the missing $80/month. All of this assumes that wages would only double, which is not clear to me.

His second point is that this scarcity in labor would result in greater worker productivity and innovation. "By holding down natural wage growth in labor-intensive industries, immigration serves as a subsidy for low-wage, low-productivity ways of doing business, retarding technological progress and productivity growth." But who is managing the economy here? No one is "holding down natural wage growth." On the contrary, a strict enforcement of existing immigration policy would prop up wages to an unnaturally high level. Conservatives (that includes me) are always making the argument that minimum wage laws create unemployment by holding the wages unnaturally high, forcing employers to get by with fewer workers. A completely open guest-worker program (which is neither proposed by the President nor endorsed here) would have wages at their "natural" level.

He is, as a conservative, actually arguing in favor of keeping willing employees and employers from finding each other as a way of holding up wages and spurring innovation. This sounds like old-fashioned protectionism to me and it isn't much different, at least in principle, to closed union shops. I'm aware that economic considerations are not the only considerations when it comes to immigration, but it seems to me that on economic grounds, the guest-worker program is more conservative than a hard-line anti-immigration policy.

Security

Conservatives are concerned that this will present a way for our enemies to enter the country legally, as long as they have jobs, and make us all less safe. On the contrary, this policy will enhance security. While some enemies surely will enter the country illegally, they will have identities in INS and FBI databases, rather than just anonymous strangers. They will have fingerprints registered in our databases.

Plus they will have jobs, which makes it harder to move about the country without being noticed. There will be only two new ways to enter this country legally as our enemy. First, they get a legitimate job and do their nefarious stuff in the off hours. That means their employer is probably one of the good guys, and since he is acting legally, he does not need to fear the INS if he reports that the bad guy has gone missing from work. The second way is not really legal, but might look legal. They get a job with a shell company that is a front for a terrorist group. This is ominous, but again, they would be registered and so would the company. It would be much easier to spot a shell company involved in terrorist plotting than it would be to spot 20 loosely connected men with no American identities.

That leaves enemies entering the old fashioned way - by coming in on fake visas or sneaking across the border or otherwise coming in outside the system. The volume of enemies entering this way may not go down under the new policy, but as a portion of all illegal immigration, it would skyrocket, making enforcement that much easier.

There seems to be some assumption that it would actually be possible to enforce existing immigration law. This is not possible both because of the sheer volume of violators (which would decrease dramatically under the new plan) and because of political will. One could argue that if we had truly harsh enforcement of the law, that would serve as a deterrent and reduce the amount of immigration to a manageable level. But as long as the vast majority of illegal immigrants are entering the country simply to work, there can be no draconian enforcement of immigration law. Under the new policy, the vast majority of people entering the country illegally would be here to do us harm and they lose their political clout and popular sympathy. Rigorous enforcement of the law would not only become possible, but also lose its stigma.

Fox Is Not Our Friend

Anyone who claims that Mexico did not treat us well during our run up to the Iraq war has a point. They sided with France instead of their friends to the North. The magnitude of their betrayal, however, was not near the magnitude of our European friends. While Mexico did not support us, I would not call them obstructionist on the matter.

But my point is not to be an apologist for the Mexican position on the war. My point is that this is in our own interest. We should not look at this as doing President Fox a favor. We are doing ourselves a favor.

Now, to be strictly free trade about the whole thing, reciprocation would be required, and I hope it is offered. That is, it should also be easy for Americans to work in Mexico. This would only be fair, but have little effect on actual immigration. I don't expect to see a flood of American workers taking Mexican jobs.

Politics

I hope that President Bush is doing this because he believes it is the right thing to do, not because he thinks it is politically advantageous. However, that doesn't mean I don't care if he's really stepped in it. Certainly the BlogsForBush mailing list was abuzz with wailing when it was announced, but given his political savvy so far, I doubt think this is political suicide. Contrary to what his critics say, he is no dummy, especially when it comes to politics. If you don't buy that, you must think he passes everything through Karl Rove, who is also no dummy.

Rush Limbaugh speculates that he is triangulating on the Democrats, since this policy will require Congressional action. If the Democrats stall on this, they lose. If they pass it, they give the issue to the Republicans. The question remains whether or not this is an issue the Republicans want to have, but Bush is betting that even the Republicans who hate this policy are not going to stay at home or vote for Pat Buchanan if they have the prospect of a Howard Dean or Wesley Clark staring them in the face.

The bottom line on the political aspect: Bush is a salesman. His base will come around once he's had their ear for a while.

As always, the devil is in the details and details are scarce at this point. It's entirely possible that once everything is made clear I will say, "Oh my God! That is the worst policy ever!" I just think it is a mistake for conservatives to jump to that conclusion, particularly when there is a core of good conservative policy here. Posted by at January 13, 2004 12:03 AM