Immigration: Rational solutions

Phil Anderson

“Few forces have shaped the modern world more than migration. Today, in an era of enhanced mobility and increased economic interconnectedness, well thought-out, pragmatic immigration and integration policies are critical in building a secure and prosperous future in countries around the world.” The Migration Policy Institute

Borders are by their nature porous. Given the 5,920 miles of Canadian and Mexican terrestrial borders and the 4,993 miles of ocean coastline (excluding Alaska and Hawaii), “securing the border” is impractical if not a complete fantasy. The Migration Policy Institute (MPI) explains, “It is unrealistic, indeed disingenuous, to contend that the measure of effective border enforcement is zero illegal crossings, as has been enshrined in U.S. law since 2006 and occupies center stage in the immigration-as-threat narrative.”

According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, between 1986 and 2016 (the date of their report) we spent $200 billion on immigration enforcement. The result was the number of unauthorized immigrants tripled. Their report said, “The growth of the undocumented population did not occur because $200 billion was not enough to “secure” the border. Rather, this money was spent trying to enforce immigration laws that have consistently failed to match either the U.S. economy’s demand for workers or the natural desire of immigrants to be reunited with their families.”

Given the variety and intensity of migrant motivations for fleeing their home countries, “deterrence” through detention and deportation is not going to reduce immigration pressure.  MPI says, “Migration pressures at the U.S.-Mexico border are inevitable, given geography and decades-long close economic and social ties with countries to the immediate south of the United States that are struggling with poverty, wars, or weak governance...” 

For these, and many other reasons, we need a more rational, humane and efficient process to manage immigration. Instead of spending billions to “secure the border,” we need comprehensive reform of our immigration laws and procedures. We need to fund enough staff to promptly handle legal immigration screening, requests for asylum, and the processing of illegal migrants.

We need to stop thinking of immigration as a problem to be deterred (or eliminated) and see it as an asset to help meet the needs of the economy. This is the consensus of a wide variety if immigration experts and policy research organizations. These groups suggest a number of solutions.  A 2023 article in Time magazine listed seven “key elements of immigration reform” that have bipartisan majority support:

A pathway to citizenship for immigrants already here A pathway to citizenship for people brought to the U.S. as children (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program) Broader access for immigrants with special skills needed to help American innovation Start up visa to enable founders of high-growth companies from around the world to launch their business in America. Expanded opportunities for international students Support for communities that serve as new homes to immigrants. Additional resources to make our broken immigration system work for everyone (“7 Things That Would Fix Immigration,” Time Magazine February 2023)

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce makes similar suggestions, plus advocates employment-based visa programs, temporary worker programs and mandatory employment verification by employers. They believe this would help business with labor needs, facilitate legal entry and reduce the number (and cost) of undocumented immigrants. Given that today almost every business has help wanted signs, this approach makes a lot of sense. The libertarian Cato Institute suggests a broader approach. They say, “The solution to America’s immigration problems is open borders, under which the United States imposes no immigration restrictions at all. If the U.S. adopts this policy, the benefits will far outweigh the costs” (“Forget the Wall Already, It’s Time for the U.S. to Have Open Borders” 2018).

The Cato Institute says making all immigration legal would eliminate all the cost, bureaucracy, inefficiency, and hardships of the current failed system. They say, “Since its founding, the United States has grown from a motley collection of colonies to one of the richest countries in the world, with some of our fastest growth occurring when immigrants arrived in large numbers. America has nothing to fear, and much to gain, from open borders.” According to the Cato Institute legalizing all migration will not flood the country with immigrants. Rather if immigrants know they can come and go freely they are less likely to put down roots. Neither will this increase the risk of terrorist entering the country.

They say there is little evidence that current immigration restrictions prevent terrorist attacks. Militarized policing has not worked for controlling illegal drugs or gambling. Perhaps the libertarians have a good point. The global economy has “free trade” agreements that allow goods, services, capital, intellectual property, manufacturing, jobs and digital technology to flow across borders.

But people are not allowed the same freedom to seek economic advancement (or personal safety). In a fair world people would be able to move across borders as freely as money and goods. Immigration reform also requires addressing the root causes of migration. Undocumented immigrants will continue as long as the political, social and economic conditions that drive people to flee their home countries exist.

The Biden administration does have a plan to address these root causes (“Collaborative Migration Management Strategy,” July 2021). It calls for “a surge of humanitarian assistance to alleviate conditions in the region” and a variety of other actions to hopefully reduce migration. But Congress has not fully funded the meager (and probably grossly inadequate) requests for these efforts.

Political posturing is again preventing rational public policy. One reform suggested by the Migration Policy Institute is to create a number of one-stop, multiple agency border “reception centers” to facilitate the immigration screening process. Given the documented value of immigrants to the economy this makes sense. We might go a step further and create “welcome centers” instead of detention centers More political demagoguery will certainly not help.

The Time article cited above says that cynical gamesmanship that treat migrants as mere props in the immigration debate – instead of as human beings and families desperately seeking freedom and opportunity, fleeing oppression, and pursuing the same American Dream as prior generations – is a false belief that immigration is an intractable problem...”