SEN. Alan K. Simpson (R) of Wyoming has reintroduced his immigration reform bill, which aims in part to control illegal immigration. The core of the bill is sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers. In the House of Representatives, Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D) of New Jersey has come forward to sponsor a similar proposal. A legal guest-worker program is a better way of achieving the same goals. It is a more humane approach than focusing on employers and foreign-looking applicants. It fits better with the spirit of the United States. And it would be more effective.
Although illegal immigration captures the attention of the Congress and the public, it is far less important in the long run than legal immigration. More legal immigration is good for the US economically, no matter how you look at it. But legal immigration gets lost in the hue and cry about the illegal flow. The risk exists that people who are against any immigration for their own reasons will be able to choke the flow of legal immigrants, a threat to the long-run vitality of the United Sta tes.
Assertions by those opposed to immigration that more migrants are coming now than ever are untrue. The number of immigrants in the recent peak year of 1980 was far below the number around the turn of the century. More important is that in proportion to the size of the native population, the immigration rate now is only about a sixth of what it was then.
Nowhere near as many illegal immigrants are in the country now, even on a temporary basis, as the Immigration and Naturalization Service and others claim there are. Last month the National Research Council put the number at between 2 million and 4 million, in contrast to the 12 million figure so often cited. And Jeffrey Passell, in charge of studying the subject for the Census Bureau, estimates that the annual net inflow of illegals is 200,000 people, or at most 250,000.
Study after reliable study shows that illegal workers, far from being a drain on the US Treasury, actually contribute between three and 10 times as much to Uncle Sam through taxes and social security payments as the cost of the government services they use.
An instant way to get rid of illegal entry is to make the same act legal, at least for some entrants. It is not now practical to open the doors to all who wish to come, even on a temporary basis. By far the largest portion of the illegals are temporary, especially the Mexicans who are the cause of so much concern; a program that would legalize their temporary entry could eliminate illegal immigration by filling the available jobs with legal workers.
An orderly legal guest-worker program not only gets rid of lawlessness, but it is fair to all comers and does not benefit those who take the law into their own hands. Administering a legal program is cheaper and more humane than having the border patrol chase illegals. There are objections to a guest-worker program, but the difficulties can be surmounted. If we worry that the illegals will not go home -- an unnecessary worry in most cases -- we can require that a portion of their pay be deducted and hel d in escrow, as with income taxes, to be returned to them when they leave. Guaranteeing decent working conditions is not more difficult in principle than it is for native workers, as long as the immigrants are legal. The biggest objection is political: Unions don't want guest workers, legal or illegal. But they are going to get competition from the workers one way or another, and it might just as well be legally.
Another way to reduce the scope of the problem would be to ask the Mexican government to allow US companies to operate freely within Mexico without having to meet troublesome restrictions -- such as taking on Mexican controlling partners. Then many companies could undertake the same business activities within Mexico that they now conduct in this country with illegal workers. Mexicans could then work legally without leaving home, and fewer illegals would seek to enter the US. With the bulk of illegal imm igrants now being employed in industry, instead of agriculture as formerly, this potential solution to the problem becomes ever more feasible.
Unions worry that illegals or guest workers would displace poor Americans from jobs. But research suggests that the effect on unemployment would not be large, although there would be some wage depression, and that much of the job displacement for citizens is mitigated because they find other jobs. Just as permanent immigrants do, temporary workers create new jobs elsewhere in the economy; hence eventually there is no job loss.
Julian Simon teaches at the University of Maryland, and is the author of the ``Ultimate Source.''