Immigration reform is at a crossroads. When Arizona passed its anti-immigration law in the spring, it said it was doing so because the federal government wasn't enforcing the law. And when President Barack Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called for immigration reform that included amnesty, critics complained that strict enforcement was needed before expanding legal immigration becomes an option. Now, the Justice Department has filed suit against Arizona's law, claiming that feds alone have the authority to enforce the nation's immigration laws.
But the problem with immigration law isn't lack of enforcement. It's the law itself.
The fact is that Obama has done more than any previous president to enforce America's ruinous immigration laws. There are 90,000 officials employed by the immigration services and almost $20 billion spent this year on enforcement. Obama has requested an additional $600 million to pay for 1,000 more border patrol agents, 160 more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigators, 30 more port officers, 20 more K9 teams and two Predator drones to be deployed along the border, and he ordered the deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops.
But despite everything this and previous administrations have done, tens of billions of dollars spent, and more men deployed to the border and on workplace raids than ever before, the laws have failed. The result has been thousands more government employees, harm to American businesses, and a pervasive and growing black market.
On Thursday, the president called for comprehensive immigration reform. But not a single proposal -- neither enforcement nor amnesty alone -- will address the problem, either now or in the future.
What the government needs to do is to expand legal immigration opportunities for the future to channel immigrants from the black market into legality.
This could be accomplished by increasing or eliminating caps on green cards; lowering or eliminating administrative costs by focusing on national security, criminal and disease concerns; and increasing the number and duration of work permits.
Expanding legal immigration doesn't mean immediately conferring social services, citizenship or other benefits. Indeed, the most common -- and untrue -- charge against immigrants is that they take public services and benefits. For example, the Federation for American Immigration Reform recently put out a report estimating that immigration costs the United States $113 billion a year. Yet FAIR only counted the costs of educating the children of immigrants while ignoring their future income and taxes paid, the increased demand for private goods and services, and the businesses that immigrants start.
Rules in place now could be slightly modified so Americans reap the benefits of expanding immigration without paying the costs of increased social services. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, actually underconsume health care and other public benefits relative to native-born Americans of similar incomes and skills.
Immigrants are generally energetic, entrepreneurial, young and healthy and not candidates for government support. They come to America to work, not to collect public benefits. The 1996 welfare reform barred legal immigrants from receiving most public benefits for their first five years of residency and denied the undocumented altogether -- yet the inflow of immigrants didn't stop.
The current approaches have failed. Instead, our government should focus on two key priorities: decreasing immigrant access to the welfare state and increasing legal immigration to the U.S.