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The case for immigration reform

It's easy to scoff at Arizona for using police-state tactics against people who sneak across the border to wash America's dishes, pick its apples, mow its lawns, and care for its children.
Image: Susan Peralta
Susan Peralta was among protestors rallying in downtown Phoenix on May 1.Paul J. Richards / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: Business Week

It's easy to scoff at Arizona for using police-state tactics against people who sneak across the border to wash America's dishes, pick its apples, mow its lawns, and care for its children. The state law signed by Governor Jan Brewer on Apr. 23 allows local police to detain anyone they reasonably suspect is in the country unlawfully, and to arrest that person if he doesn't have legitimate identity papers. Although the law prohibits racial profiling, critics think it will inevitably lead to targeting on the basis of appearance. To prod the police into staying tough, the law lets citizens sue bodies that don't enforce it. Even within Arizona the law is controversial. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, who is running for governor, calls it a "tragic mistake."

Another mistake would be to dismiss the frustration that led Arizona to pass such a measure. Abandoned by Washington, left to deal on their own with illegal immigration from a nation on their southern border that is consumed by drug violence, Arizonans took matters into their own hands. If the federal government doesn't move quickly to secure porous stretches of the border and pass comprehensive immigration reform, other states may feel compelled to improvise, too.

It was a previous crackdown — a federal effort in California — that helped create Arizona's current nightmare. In 1994 the Clinton Administration launched Operation Gatekeeper, which used fences and patrols to stem illegal border crossings in California. By 2000 the human traffic had shifted eastward, and Arizona was the site of 45 percent of illegal crossings, up from 8 percent in 1992, says Edward Alden, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. That fueled a nativist Minutemen militia movement. Arizona got its own fences, of variable effectiveness, on nearly half of its southern flank — and 4,000 Border Patrol agents.

Since Mexicans couldn't make it across by themselves, they turned to vicious Mexican smuggling rings. Suddenly, Alden says, organized crime emerged as a problem. Perhaps the last straw for Arizonans came in late March with the murder of Robert Krentz on his Cochise County cattle ranch, which had been in his family for a century. Krentz was patrolling the 35,950-acre ranch when he was shot by an unknown assailant. It seemed to Arizonans that matters were spinning out of control.

For years, the U.S. has behaved hypocritically on immigration. Legal immigration of low-skilled workers is far below the amount demanded by American businesses, from farms to day-care centers to restaurants. Just 5,000 green cards a year are issued to low-skilled workers seeking permanent residence. In boom times employers would want as many as 400,000 immigrants on permanent or temporary visas, says Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, an employers group. With such a disparity between demand and the legal supply, it's no surprise that smuggling and other forms of criminality are common. The same thing happened the last time the government tried to ban something desired by a big portion of the public. That would be the Prohibition era, from 1920 to 1933, when sales of alcohol were forbidden.

One obvious but imperfect way to relieve the pressure is to increase the number of low-skilled immigrants who are admitted legally. The need for them will only grow in the years ahead. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted last year that between 2008 and 2018 the U.S. economy will generate 8.1 million jobs requiring no more than on-the-job training or experience in a related occupation. That's far more than the 4.8 million new jobs that will require a bachelor's degree or more. What makes this solution imperfect is that flooding the job market with immigrants, who don't dare complain about pay or working conditions for fear of being fired and sent home, will harm less educated, native-born Americans and earlier- arriving immigrants who compete with them for work. "When employers say they need 400,000 visas a year, they're saying 'we need indentured servants,' " says Eileen Appelbaum, a Rutgers University economist.

So increasing legal immigration can't be the whole answer. The other — less familiar — solution is to reorganize the American workplace to diminish the number of jobs that require low skills and hence command low pay. That would pull in more Americans who have drifted away from gainful employment. Sound far-fetched? In other developed nations, nannies, sales clerks, and waiters are well-trained and earn living wages. A study of labor conditions in six wealthy nations by the Russell Sage Foundation found that the U.S. had the highest share of low-paying jobs, defined as work that paid less than two-thirds of the median wage. The U.S. share was 25 percent, followed by Germany at 23 percent, the U.K. at 22 percent, the Netherlands at 18 percent, France at 11 percent, and Denmark at just 9 percent.

Investing in employees to upgrade their skills and put them on a path to promotions and higher pay is good for employers as well as workers. In Denmark, meatpacker Danish Crown pays relatively high union wages and competes successfully with American meatpackers that have turned to immigrants to keep wages low. In the U.S., companies like CVS, the drugstore chain; Staples, the office-supply chain; and Nypro, an employee-owned plastics maker, have shown the profit potential in hiring low-skilled workers and training them for advancement. "It's not the border that's broken, it's our low-wage labor market," says John Schmitt, an economist with the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. Schmitt co-edited a book called Low-Wage Work in the Wealthy World based on the Russell Sage-funded research.

Serious talk about solving the immigration problem is too often drowned out by sloganeering and appeals to emotion by all sides. Even the Homeland Security Dept. has gotten into the act with recent press releases about nabbing a Haitian who tried to cross from Canada in a hockey bag, or a Mexican actress and model who was caught in a sham marriage. ("This actor should have realized that posing as a bride for immigration purposes could land her a role in a real-life crime drama," a special agent was quoted as saying.)

That's a shame, because the outlines of reform are pretty clear by now. The key elements are contained in a bill unveiled in March by Senators Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat, and Lindsey Graham, the South Carolina Republican. The bill provides for a biometric identification card for verification of employment, to stop illegal hiring at the source; stronger enforcement of immigration laws; and a path for undocumented aliens already in the country to earn citizenship.

There's room for debate about details of the bill. It allows for guest workers, who history shows are ripe for exploitation. Some aspects seem overly discouraging to illegal immigrants, such as requiring them to pay fines and back taxes, perform community service, and become proficient in English in order to earn citizenship. Still, there's enough right with the bill for it to deserve serious consideration in Congress. That probably won't happen this year, in part because the hundreds of hours of stakeholder negotiations that must prepare the way for such a bill simply have not happened.

The bigger problem is politics. Persistently high unemployment has bred resentment of illegal immigrants who have jobs. Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, has switched to a get-tough approach on illegal immigration to fight off a conservative primary challenger. And even though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat, has promised to push for a reform bill, he's doing that mostly for show. In other words, expect to see more desperate gambits like Arizona's.