Missing the Boat: Immigration Law Demonizes Foreigners But Solves Little

Peter Skerry
Peter Skerry Former Brookings Expert, Professor of Political Science - Boston College

October 20, 1996

The immigration bill signed into law by President Clinton late last month is a perfect example of what’s wrong with American politics these days. Having aroused ethnic, racial and partisan rancor, the legislation will do surprisingly little to relieve public anxiety about the largest wave of immigration to reach these shores in a century. Instead, it will only fuel cynicism about the government’s capacity to address critical problems—even though most people agree that immigration is a policy area in which government has a vital role.

Seemingly the most promising aspect of the new bill is its authorization of more Border Patrol personnel—1,000 new agents each year for five years, leading to a doubling of the agency’s size by the year 2001 (from 5,000 to 10,000). Obviously, more manpower is needed to help stop illegal immigration. But how effective will this provision be? The Border Patrol is already adding new agents about as fast as it can. There is concern that if the ratio of inexperienced to experienced agents gets much higher, it could jeopardize the safety of the officers and the public, including illegal immigrants.

The target of 10,000 agents will almost certainly prove illusory because the Border Patrol is rapidly losing experienced agents. Attrition has always been high in this neglected branch of federal law enforcement. Agents already coping with relatively low pay and a lack of public respect now face the Clinton administration’s controversial new policy of “deterrence.” Deterrence means that instead of pursuing illegal immigrants once they have entered the United States, agents now maintain fixed and highly visible positions along the border. Where this method of deployment has been tried, notably in El Paso and San Diego, it has been effective. But it also alienates the agents, who are not only bored with their “dumbed down” jobs but also concerned (not unreasonably) that their pay and status may decline. This will only increase the rate of attrition.

Congress understands that our immigration problem cannot be entirely solved at our borders, but in last month’s legislative battle, neither side got it quite right.

The restrictionists, led by the Republicans, sought to curb immigration by limiting reliance on social welfare programs. But they overreached when they unsuccessfully tried to define such programs as Head Start and college loans as “welfare.” They also exaggerated the extent to which such benefits attract immigrants. As immigrant advocates have pointed out, there is little or no evidence for such claims.

The Democrats were right to argue that social programs are not the chief cause of immigration, but wrong to assume such programs are irrelevant. Immigrants may not be coming here for social welfare benefits, but they may be staying here because of them. For instance, the availability of benefits may help to explain why the emigration rates of migrants back to their own countries are much lower than 90 years ago. (In the first decade of this century about four emigrants left the country for every 10 people who arrived; in the 1980s there were fewer than two emigrants for every 10 immigrants.)

This war of half-truths reached its climax in the debate over the provision to exclude illegal immigrant children from public schools. Ultimately dropped from the bill, this proposal brought out the worst on both sides.

The restrictionist-Republican argument strained credulity: that illegal immigrants come here just so that their children can attend our schools (which in urban areas are too often overcrowded, drug-infested and crime-ridden).

Equally audacious was the immigrant advocates’ insistence that keeping these children out of the schools would boost juvenile crime and gang activity. Could it be that immigrants are not all the gentle gardeners and brilliant astrophysicists found in pro-immigration rhetoric?

High dropout and low achievement rates in immigrant communities indicate that the ties between schools and immigrant families are already tenuous. In fact, the immigrant advocates were tacitly acknowledging what they reject as xenophobic paranoia when voiced by others: that the massive movements of human beings we’ve been experiencing raise justifiable concerns about the maintenance of social order.

All this shadow-boxing allowed both sides to avoid the one immigration control measure that is clearly indicated by the evidence: stiffer sanctions on those Americans who employ illegal immigrants. If the research tells us anything, it is that jobs are the number one magnet.

This is no secret, even in Washington. But nobody wanted to confront it. The Republicans found it easier to crack down on voteless illegal immigrants than to penalize the small and medium-sized businesses at the heart of their constituency. And while the Democrats made brave noises about going after abusive employers and sweatshops, they avoided addressing the need for a secure system of employee identification to make sanctions work. To do so would have antagonized civil libertarians concerned about privacy and minority group advocates worried about discrimination.

Underlying all these problems is a more fundamental flaw. As originally envisioned by Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Rep. Lamar S. Smith (R-Tex.), the new legislation was to be an overhaul of legal as well as illegal immigration. For once, lawmakers were basing their proposed legislation on solid research evidence. Illegal and legal immigration are inextricably intertwined. Both legal and illegal immigrants come here primarily to find work; both come via well-established networks of family and friends; and both live in the same neighborhoods and households.

Despite its sound conceptual basis, this would-be comprehensive legislation got derailed last winter. When Simpson proposed an excessively drastic reduction in legal immigration, an ad hoc Third World-Nerd World alliance emerged, uniting immigrant advocates and high-tech employers such as Microsoft Corp.’s Bill Gates. The result was a postponement of consideration of legal immigration levels until the next Congress.

Ironically, a further result of last winter’s confrontation was the capitulation of immigrant advocates to an anti-illegal stance. Remember, these are the same groups that used to denounce the term “illegal alien” in favor of “undocumented worker.” Feeling the brunt of the anti-immigration backlash, they now echo the simple-minded formula: “legal immigrants good, illegal immigrants bad.”

This formula is potentially dangerous. By legitimizing hostility against illegal immigrants, it may foster more violent episodes such as the one in Riverside, Calif., earlier this year, when two sheriff’s deputies were videotaped brutally attacking two suspected illegal aliens.

Worse, this preoccupation with illegal immigration may persuade Americans that the whole problem has been addressed. It hasn’t. The history of immigration policy in the postwar era has been one of inaccurate predictions, unintended consequences and inflated expectations—along with constantly rising levels of immigration, both legal and illegal. This bill does nothing to change that pattern.