Samuelson: Seeking Sense on Immigration

Our stalled immigration debate needs more common sense and more common decency. America's immigration system is unquestionably broken. It encourages illegality, frustrates assimilation and barely aids the economy—exactly the opposite of what it should do. Senators are striving to craft something more sensible. But they will fail unless both liberals and conservatives discard some of their cherished ambitions.

From liberals, we need more common sense. Their main position is to perpetuate a policy that guarantees rising U.S. poverty. Consider: From 1990 to 2005, the increase in the number of people living beneath the government's poverty line (now about $20,000 for a family of four) was 3,365,000; the increase in the number of Hispanics living below the poverty line over the same period was 3,362,000. Does anyone doubt that this coincidence stems mostly from immigration?

True, much of it was illegal. But many liberals—along with the Bush administration and business groups—favor a sizable program of "guest workers." In effect, the annual flow of illegal immigrants would become an annual flow of guest workers. But they'd still be poor; and they'd also be promised a path to U.S. citizenship. In other words, they wouldn't be "guests."

Liberals have embraced an unholy alliance with business in which business gets most of the gains and immigration's costs are thrown onto the public sector. The justification is an alleged shortage of unskilled workers. That's a fiction. In March, the unemployment rate for college graduates was 1.8 percent; for the 13 million workers without a high-school diploma, it was 7 percent.

Tight labor markets raise wages. Admitting more poor, low-skilled Latino workers hurts Latinos already here by depressing their wages. It's anti-Hispanic and anti-assimilation. Almost certainly, it also hurts the wages of other low-skilled Americans. Businesses grasp this—hence their support for guest workers—even if some academic economists do not. Why many liberals don't is a puzzle.

There are further consequences. Low-paid workers often don't cover the cost of their social services with taxes. Schools and hospitals are burdened. Since 1990, about 60 percent of the increase in those without health insurance has occurred among Hispanics. A policy that favors poor immigrants will strain social services and raise taxes. In the mid-1990s, immigrant families cost native households an average of $1,200 in extra taxes in California. If immigration of the poor continues, this effect will spread.

From conservatives, we need more common decency. A favorite rallying cry is "no amnesty." Today's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, it's said, shouldn't receive legal status—let alone citizenship. Don't reward criminality. This sounds principled but ignores sensible conservative precepts.

One is responsibility. All of us are morally complicit in the flood of illegal immigrants. Our government encouraged it through loose border controls and lax oversight of employer hiring. A second precept is practicality. Hardly anyone thinks the 12 million can be rounded up and sent home. To pretend otherwise is dishonest, ordains failure and makes government seem inept. It also condones disrespect for the law. By denying legal status to long-standing residents, we perpetuate the system's illegality.

Finally, there's family and humanity. About two thirds of the children of illegal immigrants were born here and are U.S. citizens, reports demographer Jeff Passel of the Pew Hispanic Center. A futile campaign to remove many longtime illegal immigrants would splinter families. Some children would remain here; others—American citizens—would have their lives shattered by their own government.

To oversimplify only slightly: Liberals (and the Bush administration) often pander to Hispanic voters; conservatives often pander to anti-Hispanic prejudice. Our immigration system should do neither. It should control our borders and create a reliable worker-verification system for businesses. Violators should be punished severely. Long-standing illegal immigrants who meet legislated standards of good behavior and community ties should receive legal status—"amnesty," though by a less provocative label. There should be no major "guest worker" program. Instead, permanent-residency visas—leading to citizenship—should favor skilled over low-skilled workers.

Even with much goodwill, it's unclear that we can create this sort of system. Practical problems abound. Can we really control our borders? But without a consensus of what we're trying to do—and why—the chances of success are negligible. America has a wonderful capacity to assimilate newcomers, but it cannot constructively absorb limitless numbers of poor, unskilled newcomers. The point of favoring highly skilled immigrants is to promote assimilation, bolster the economy and minimize the social and cultural conflicts of immigration.

If the senators negotiating these hard issues fashion a compromise simply by mixing items from each side's agenda—agendas that are mainly opposed—the resulting accommodation will disappoint both and ensure that immigration looms ever larger as an economic and political tinderbox.