Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Stuart Anderson


December 14, 2003

"Legal visas, enforcement could reduce illegal immigration"


At least once a year a case makes headlines of a well-known company alleged to have employed people not authorized to work in this country. The script is predictable: the firm is denounced, prosecutors vow to make an example, and when all is said and done, America is left with many people working in the country who are not supposed to be here.


Current policies have not worked. Since 1986, it has been unlawful for U.S. employers to knowingly hire a person unauthorized to work in the United States. Beginning in 1990, the U.S. government increased the level of U.S. Border Patrol Agents from 3,600 to nearly 10,000 by the end of the decade. Yet illegal immigration rose by 5.5 million between 1990 and 2000 and, overall, an estimated 8 million people today are living in the country illegally.


Immigration opponents would seek to make denying employment to those not permitted to work in the country perhaps the nation's top priority. Yet as national security threats represent a far greater danger than waiters without green cards is that a likely government position, even within immigration enforcement itself? In light of other priorities and finite resources, calling for more and more enforcement against U.S. employers appears as more of a rhetorical device than a genuine policy proposal. As the Wall Street Journal recently editorialized, "Short of doing things that would offend American values-such as threatening to shoot border crossers we can't stop immigrants from coming." However, we can funnel many of them into legal channels.


In fact, a combination of law enforcement and expanded legal avenues for entry is the key to controlling illegal immigration. When at a congressional hearing in the 1950s, a top Immigration official was asked what would happen to illegal immigration if the bracero program for Mexican agricultural workers ended, he replied, "We can't do the impossible, Mr. Congressman." However, by not allowing the effective safety valve of legal visas, it appears that is precisely what the Border Patrol has been asked to do.


The absence of avenues to work legally in the United States is a primary reason for the current levels of illegal immigration. The National Foundation for American Policy's recent report, "The Impact of Agricultural Guest Worker Programs on Illegal Immigration" concluded, "By providing a legal path to entry for Mexican farm workers the bracero program significantly reduced illegal immigration."


INS apprehensions are important indicators of the illegal flow; in general, apprehension numbers drop when the flow of illegal immigration decreases. After the 1954 enforcement actions were combined with an increased use of the bracero program, INS apprehensions fell from the 1953 level of 885,587 to as low as 45,336 in 1959-indicating a 95 percent reduction in the flow of illegal immigration into the United States. Moreover, from 1964-when the bracero program ended to 1976, INS apprehensions increased from 86,597 to 875,915-a more than 1,000 percent increase, indicating a significant rise in illegal immigration.


Two pieces of legislation in Congress offer hope out of the status quo. The AgJobs Act (S. 1645/H.R. 3142) would reform the seldom-used H-2A (agricultural work) visa category and with bipartisan support correct flaws in the old bracero program while transitioning from illegal to legal migration. S. 1461/H.R. 2899, introduced by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Reps. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), rectifies the absence of a usable less skilled visa category with a new visa that would allow a three-year admission period without the regulatory restrictions the current H-2B category imposes on the employment a visa holder may pursue. Like the Agjobs Act, the bill also transitions sectors of the U.S. economy from an illegal to a legal workforce.


As the bills recognize, removing from the flow across the border those people who would now possess valid visas to work legally in the country will make the Border Patrol's job much more manageable.


Policy makers can continue the status quo of an "enforcement only" approach or attempt to pass a "guest worker only" bill that, by not addressing those already here, guarantees it will lack the political support to become law. However, they can instead adopt the more pragmatic approach represented in the AgJobs Act and the McCain-Kolbe-Flake bill: Combining new temporary worker visas and immigration enforcement with a transition that addresses those now in the country.


Unless America puts into place a realistic program that allows employers to fill the demand for labor with legal workers, complaining about illegal immigration, unfortunately, will remain an exercise in howling at the moon.


Stuart Anderson is executive director of the National Foundation for American Policy, an Arlington, Va.-based public policy research organization. He served as executive associate commissioner for policy and planning at the Immigration and Naturalization Service from August 2001 to January 2003.

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