Time to Solve Immigration

If Iraq was the dominating topic of the election season in the United States, immigration is the issue that wasn't. Despite the efforts of populist and nativist politicians and pundits to whip up hysteria about a looming catastrophe, Americans didn't bite. In a news-week poll taken last week, voters listed immigration a distant fifth on their list of concerns--after Iraq, terrorism, the economy and health care.

Polling on immigration has been remarkably consistent over the past few years. The American public wants tighter enforcement of the laws but also realizes that the system now in place is unworkable. Consistent two-thirds majorities favor a comprehensive overhaul that would include tighter enforcement, but also guest-worker visas and a path to citizenship for illegal workers already in the country. This compromise package has the potential to be realized after the elections. After all, how many issues are there today on which George W. Bush, Hillary Clinton, John McCain, Ted Kennedy and Rudy Giuliani all agree?

The great obstacle to immigration reform has been a noisy minority. Only about 20 percent of voters, mostly but not exclusively Republican, are dead set against a guest-worker program as well as any path to citizenship for illegals. But they are active primary voters, which means that their influence has been vastly enhanced (and exaggerated) during the campaign season. Come Tuesday, the party will be over. CNN's Lou Dobbs and his angry band of xenophobes will continue to rail, but a new Congress, with fewer Republicans and no impending primary elections, would make the climate much less vulnerable to the tyranny of the minority.

On the contrary, it will make enormous political sense for all sides to come together and cut a deal. To start with, President Bush needs to accomplish something . He has given only two Oval Office addresses on domestic policy--one on Social Security reform, the other on immigration. The first is dead. If he cannot enact his immigration plan, his second term will be void of any achievements.

John McCain, the Republican front runner in 2008, needs to get the issue off the table before the Republican presidential primaries heat up. The maverick senator can fudge almost every other issue on which he disagrees with the Republican base. He can signal greater warmth toward the religious right. Global warming is an abstraction. The torture debate is over. But on immigration, McCain is the author of a bill that has at its heart provisions for guest workers and citizenship. He needs to get the issue resolved.

The same logic applies for Rudy Giuliani, who sometimes polls even higher than McCain among Republicans. Giuliani supports Bush's position on immigration (which is essentially the same as McCain's) even though he makes the requisite noises about defending the border. For the Democrats this is an unusual opportunity. They could get most of what they want, while a Republican president gives them cover on the right.

But for any of this to happen, Bush has to decide that he wants immigration reform enough to change his political style. He will have to craft a bill that relies on Democrats to pass, not Republicans. It's been done before. Bill Clinton supported the North American Free Trade Agreement knowing full well that he would not have the support of his Democratic base. He did so because he believed it was the right policy for the country.

Bush faces a similar choice. Like trade, immigration is an issue on which the instinctive, emotional position is simple, powerful and wrong. The evidence is overwhelming that the United States benefits hugely from immigration--and that it needs all the immigrants it's now receiving, legal and illegal. Alone in the industrialized world, America has a rising population, which means a faster-growing economy and new supplies of young workers who can sustain the needs of the economy and of retirees. Without immigration, America's growth rate has not been much different than France's over the past 20 years.

The only point on which there has been serious academic debate is whether immigrants lower the wages of native-born Americans. Recent research by Professor Giovanni Perri at the University of California, Berkeley, proves that previous models have been wrong and that the net effect of immigration is positive for all workers. Perri says he's been conservative in his estimates and that, taking into account other side effects of immigration, the boost to wages may be even higher.

Comprehensive reform is the only way forward. Enforcement only or first will not work. Laws that pay no heed to the forces of supply and demand end up as costly failures. (Think of Prohibition.) The good news is that this is a rare case where good policy and good politics could come together.