Immigration is one of those issues that just does not go away. So proposals recently made by an eight-member bipartisan group of senators are welcome. They generally are sensible, as far as they go. But some aspects of the initiative are problematic. Moreover, even sensible reforms will not solve all the problems.
As long as there are large differentials in living standards between nations, or in levels of safety, people will have incentives to cross national borders, legally or illegally, to seek a better life.
Moreover, regardless of the legal status, many members of the existing population, including immigrants who arrived in the past, will be affected economically by such flows of people. And some people will resent the new arrivals for rational as well as irrational reasons.
So this issue isnt going to go away, just as it didnt after the bipartisan 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli Act tightened regulations on employers and granted amnesty to more than 2.8 million illegal immigrants who had arrived prior to 1982.
The changes advocated by the eight worthy senators seem sensible. But some aspects of the whole situation raise questions.
First, the fact that this is happening now seems driven very much by Republican panic about the most recent election results and an incomplete diagnosis of why they did not do as well as they had hoped. From a stance of frequent hostility toward illegal immigrants, they now seem to be rushing to accommodate them, or at least the groups of voters who sympathize with their plight.
But while this change of heart is welcome, history tells us that we seldom get good legislation out of a bidding war between the two political parties to gain the favor of some special interest group.
The Medicare drug benefit passed in 2003 is a recent case in point. The sharp increase in Social Security benefit levels, coupled with indexing such benefits to inflation that resulted from a pandering duel in 1972-73 between President Richard Nixon and House Ways and Means Chairman Wilbur Mills is another. If we start a similar contest over who can be nicest to Hispanics, we may get into trouble.
Secondly, the recommendations are unbalanced in terms of the separate issues of immigrants already here versus how to better control future inflows. This is analogous to the distinction economists make between stock natural resources like crude oil and iron ore and flow resources like hydropower or timber.
Creating a path to citizenship for those already here addresses the first problem. But while the recommendations contain pious boilerplate about not doing anything else before better border controls are in place, they do not set out realistic measures to limit illegal immigration in the future.
We dont need Milton Friedman to tell us that demand for undocumented immigrant labor plays as big a role in illegal border crossings as its supply. Despite the delusions of some, people dont undergo the rigors of crossing the border because President Barack Obama is waiting to give them food stamps, Social Security and free medical care. They come here to get jobs.
Anti-immigration zealots talk of an invasion. Potential immigrants see it as a job fair with thousands of U.S. employers willing to risk the inadequate penalties laid out in the 1986 legislation in order to hire a less expensive workforce.
Yes, large corporate employers tend to be deterred by existing penalties, or by the fear of bad publicity if caught. But as long as dairy, fruit and vegetable farmers, roofers, landscaping contractors and myriad other employers demonstrate our national willingness to hire people who are in this country against the law, putting more money into border controls wont do much.
Employers will protest that even with the revamped E-Verify system run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, it is hard to weed out people with bad documents. Moreover, while the public is all for control, when immigration agents raid restaurants, farms or anyone else employing illegals, members of Congress experience a wave of protest from the affected businesses.
And neither Democrats nor Republicans are willing to raise taxes to fund the dramatic increases in spending on enforcement that would be necessary to truly deter employers, large and small, from hiring people without the legal right to work here.
Third, eventually granting citizenship to several millions of people already here, coming on the heels of the some 2.8 million who received amnesty during the Reagan administration, certainly reinforces the message that if you can manage to get across the border, sooner or later you will be able to regularize your status.
In economic terms, the rigors of crossing the border and the travails of living on the margin of the law when here function like an excise tax.
Increase the difficulties of crossing the border and you cut crossings. But increase the hope that in another decade or two there will be yet another path to citizenship or amnesty, call it what you will, and you effectively decrease the tax. Just as in bailing out big banks, you can say, OK, but we are never going to do it again, as often and as loudly as you want, but actions still speak louder than words.
Finally, proposals for permits for agricultural workers and for giving automatic green cards to those obtaining graduate degrees in the U.S. are, on the whole, probably good for the country.
But these are pro-employer measures that dont do any favors to citizens or legal residents who already work in high tech or are employed on farms.
Economist Edward Lotterman teaches and writes in St. Paul, Minn. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.