Better tools for immigration reform than in 1986

Border by Shutterstock.com

The US-Mexico border fence on the Tijuana side looking into San Diego.

Article Highlights

  • The US tried legalizing illegal immigrants in the 1986 immigration act, but we didn't get effective border control.

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  • The 1986 immigration law left a system with more slots for collateral relatives than for high-skill graduates.

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  • Nearly 60 percent of illegal immigrants come from Mexico, with which we share a 2,000-mile border

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  • Mexico is becoming a majority middle-class country, which reduces incentives to emigrate to the US.

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Yesterday, as Barack Obama called for a bipartisan immigration bill in Las Vegas and Sen. Marco Rubio called for one on Rush Limbaugh's program, the chances for passage look surprisingly good.

But in some quarters, mostly from the right but also from liberals like blogger Mickey Kaus, comes a complaint that deserves to be addressed.

We tried this once already, they say, in the 1986 immigration act. We were told that in return for legalization of illegal immigrants we would get tough border control and strict enforcement against employers who hired illegals.

We got the amnesty, these folks say, but we didn't get effective border control or workplace enforcement. We got instead a huge flow of illegals, who number 11 million now.

Why should anything be different this time? It's a reasonable question, and I think there are reasonable answers.

And let's not charge anyone with racism here. After all, illegal immigrants have, by definition, done something illegal. And legalization involves some element of forgiveness.

The argument for granting legal status is that we as a nation have been complicit in tolerating a situation in which it's easy and profitable to violate the law. The price of changing that is granting legal status to otherwise unobjectionable illegals because we can't deport 11 million people.

So what are the reasons to think such legislation would produce different results from those of the 1986 law?

Border enforcement. It's clear that we've been doing better and can do better still. Fences at some portions of the border have stopped illegal crossings, and we have unmanned aerial vehicles unavailable 25 years ago.

The eight senators' framework called for an "entry-exit system that tracks whether all persons entering the United States on temporary visas via airports and seaports have left the country as required by law."

That suggests something feasible now that wasn't back then: an identity card linked to a database with biometric identification. India is now creating such a system for its 1.2 billion people. Why can't we do that for many fewer immigrants and visa holders?

High-skill immigration. The 1986 law left intact a system with more slots for collateral relatives like siblings than for high-skill graduates. Today there's a big demand for the latter.

The new framework from senators of both parties calls for green cards for those with U.S. advanced science, math and tech degrees. Why keep these people out? Why tie them to one employer?

Employment verification. The 1986 law didn't prevent illegals from getting fake identification. Americans on both left and right hated the idea of anything like a national identity card.

Americans today feel differently. Most of us seem content to carry cellphones that enable others to track our whereabouts at any time.

And we have the E-Verify system for employers to check the legal status of job applicants. It's working well after initial glitches, and in states with high E-Verify usage like Arizona, illegal numbers have declined.

It could be even more effective to require identity cards with biometric links. Making it hard for illegals to get jobs would hugely reduce the incentive for illegal immigration.

Source of illegal immigrants. Nearly 60 percent of illegal immigrants come from Mexico, with which we share a 2,000-mile border. But net migration from Mexico appears to have been zero since the housing bubble burst in 2007.

We don't know whether it will resume again. But we do know (as we didn't in the decade after our free-trade agreement) that Mexico's economy can grow faster than ours, as it is now.

Mexico is becoming a majority middle-class country, which reduces incentives to emigrate. I predict we'll never again see Mexican immigration of the magnitude we saw between 1982 and 2007.

If that's right, it means we won't see a wave of illegals as we saw after the 1986 law.

There were potentially significant differences between what Obama and Rubio said yesterday.

Obama wants a faster path to citizenship for illegals. Rubio insists that legalization only be triggered when enforcement is strengthened.

Putting together a comprehensive bill requires trade-offs and compromises. Obama's 2007 Senate votes for what John McCain and Edward Kennedy called killer amendments helped defeat an immigration bill when the political stars seemed more in alignment than they do today.

Obama now could demand provisions Republicans won't accept and blame them for killing reform. It depends on whether he wants a political issue or a law.

Michael Barone,The Examiner's senior political analyst, can be contacted at mbarone@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Wednesday and Sunday, and his stories and blog posts appear on washingtonexaminer.com.

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Michael
Barone
  • Michael Barone, a political analyst and journalist, studies politics, American government, and campaigns and elections. The principal coauthor of the annual Almanac of American Politics (National Journal Group), he has written many books on American politics and history. Barone is also a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner.

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