By MAE M. NGAI
IN Las Vegas yesterday, President Obama made it clear that an overhaul of America’s immigration laws was his top domestic priority. He expressed cautious support for a bipartisan plan by eight senators that would create a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants in exchange for tougher border enforcement, employment checks and temporary work visas for farmworkers and highly skilled engineers and scientists.
Many critical details are still missing, but the general framework is notable for its familiarity. Variations on all of these measures have been tried before, with mixed results. Legalization of the undocumented is humane and practical, but the proposals for controlling future immigration are almost certain to fail.
The promise to “secure the border” made for good politics even before 1986, when Congress passed the last comprehensive immigration reform bill. In the last quarter-century we have spent approximately $187 billion on enforcement, mostly along the United States-Mexico border. This included a ninefold increase in the size of the Border Patrol since 1980; nearly 700 miles of fencing; and the deployment of surveillance drones and motion sensors. These efforts reduced but did not stop unauthorized entries (only the Great Recession was able to reduce the net flow of Mexican illegal immigration to effectively zero). In fact, the hazards of crossing an increasingly militarized border led many Mexican workers to settle permanently in the United States.
Similarly, proposals for a new guest worker program, which were scuttled from the 1986 legislation because of opposition from labor and immigrant advocates, should again give us pause. From the agricultural “Bracero Program” of the 1940s and ’50s to the current H-2 visa for temporary unskilled labor, these programs are notorious for employer abuse.
If we really want to tackle unauthorized migration, we need to understand why it exists in the first place. The most important cause is our system of allocating green cards, or visas for permanent residency, which stipulates that no country may have more than 7 percent of the total each year. With an annual ceiling of 366,000 family- and employer-sponsored visas, the per-country limit is 25,620.