We Need a Fresh Start on Immigration
Reprinted from the Los Angeles Times
September 4, 2001
By Demetrios G. Papademetriou
Most reactions to the ongoing U.S.-Mexico negotiations on migration have focused on how savvy the politics are. And indeed, they are. The real and still largely untold story, however, may be how the negotiations hold the potential to recast the bilateral migration relationship so that it greatly benefits both countries.
That relationship has been broken for decades. Fixing it requires a multi-pronged strategy in which the elements are intertwined. It also requires the will to resist calls for easy fixes and tired prescriptions -- things such as the unilateral law-and-order responses that have failed so spectacularly in the last 15 years and blanket amnesty programs that seem to result in more illegal migration and, in due course, pressure for more blanket amnesties.
Good public policy cannot be built on fiction. Our poorly thought-out and poorly executed immigration strategies have created a large pool of illegal resident foreigners, most of whom are now ensconced in our labor markets and the communities in which they live. Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas) points this out most provocatively by observing that governments at all levels, communities, employers and all of us as consumers have had a hand in creating this status quo.
What should we be doing instead? When Presidents Bush and Vicente Fox meet on Wednesday, they should include four elements in their discussion of an integrated policy package.
The first element should be to allow as many of the Mexicans who are illegally here -- if they wish to do so -- to earn "green cards," or permanent resident status.
Policy-wise, you cannot reform immigration until you address those who illegally reside here. Unlike the amnesty of 1986, however, relatively few people should qualify immediately for green cards. Most should be required to earn such status after probationary periods during which they can amass qualifying criteria. Close family relationships should certainly be counted. Stable employment, tax compliance, progress toward learning English and, if we can find a meaningful measure, engagement in the life of one's community, in addition to good conduct and length of stay, should also be in the mix.
Finally, a substantial fee -- a fine, for those who must see an unambiguous penalty component in the mix -- also should be included. That fee should go partly toward defraying governmental processing costs. The biggest part, however, might go into a trust fund to reimburse states and localities for costs associated with the integration of these newly legalized residents. By itself, however, even the most far-reaching earned legalization program alone would not make enough of a difference. To do that, we must issue many more legal visas than we do now -- and issue them more consistently with labor market needs. Some of the new visas would be permanent ones for both employment and family reunification purposes. Most, however, should be temporary and should treat workers as the valued contributors to our well-being that they are.
This part of the integrated policy package should be mindful of the regional economies and labor markets that the North American Free Trade Agreement helped shape. More than 100,000 Canadians entered the U.S. to work last year through a NAFTA-devised long-term temporary visa, and an additional 10,000 Canadians move here permanently each year.
The numbers for Mexican immigration to the U.S. are roughly similar, but legal permanent moves outnumbered legal temporary ones by about 12 to 1.
Both sets of numbers have been on the increase in recent years -- as has illegal immigration -- reflecting the fact of increasing regional economic integration.
These facts suggest that contiguity and economic integration give rise to certain "neighborhood effects" that are inevitable. We should therefore exempt both Canada and Mexico from our worldwide migration formulas. It is the smartest and easiest way to make the largest and most immediate difference in the region's migration dilemmas while advancing both U.S. and Mexican priorities and creating some badly needed additional visa "space" for other countries.
Fundamental Mexican involvement in recasting the bilateral migration relationship is the third policy element -- and perhaps the most crucial. Instead of continuing to pretend that we can meet our migration management goals on our own, the Bush administration should pursue those goals jointly with Mexico.
Both governments must work as one if legality, safety, order and proper treatment in the workplace are to replace the status quo. The incentives both for U.S. employers and Mexican workers to play by the new rules must be strong, as must be the disincentives. On the Mexican side, this means broad law enforcement cooperation with the U.S. to target the criminal syndicates that lead many would-be undocumented immigrants to their deaths, turn our common border into a chaotic place, challenge the laws of both our countries and, in many fundamental ways, challenge and undermine Mexican democracy. On the U.S. side, this means a border management strategy that allows us to guard against the inevitable start-up glitches and an interior enforcement strategy that targets the real bad players -- including employers.
The final element is a longer-term goal: the development of Mexico, particularly the areas from which most Mexicans emigrate. Building up these regions' social and physical infrastructure will be crucial if, over time, the core reasons for immigration are weakened.
Reconceptualizing a broken migration relationship that always threatens to contaminate an otherwise robust and economically crucial relationship will require both good thinking and investments of substantial political capital by the two presidents.
If they get it right, they will have accomplished a truly rare thing: creating the conditions for good policy and responsible governance on a truly contentious issue. They also will have solved one of the globalization era's thorniest issues.
Demetrios G. Papademetriou is co-director of the Migration Policy Institute
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