Divide is too deep for immigration reform

Steven Camarota doubts that Congress will agree on an immigration bill this election year. The research director for the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C., sees too great a divide between the views of "elites" and the "public" over the economic and social merit of a massive inflow of foreigners.

A legislative stalemate would result in a continuation of what a study for the conservative Heritage Foundation calls "a policy of benign neglect."

The elites, including business leaders, would like an amnesty for the nearly 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States - though it wouldn't be called an amnesty but a "guest worker program," perhaps. They welcome cheap immigrant labor.

Contrariwise, polls show the public is strongly opposed to letting undocumented immigrants (many with fake papers) obtain citizenship.

The Republican Party is divided on how to deal with the issue, making a resolution even less likely. Democrats are also divided, but they can just sit back and watch the fuss.

Fear of terrorism has led to more calls for reform. Almost four of every 100 people in the country today sneaked across the borders or overextended their visa, according to numbers in a new Pew Hispanic Center report. Some 850,000 illegal immigrants have entered the country annually for each of the past six years. If so many illegals can get in, the theory goes, couldn't terrorists use the same routes and get in as well?

"The real problem presented by illegal immigration is security, not economics," says the Heritage study by Tim Kane and Kirk Johnson.

On Dec. 16, the House passed a tough border-security bill. It includes a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border, the first-ever criminal penalties for illegals, and a requirement that businesses check the status of new hires on a federal electronic database. If enforced, the bill could stem the flow of new illegal immigrants. If Mexicans, Central Americans, and others can't get jobs in the US, they won't come.

The Senate is still working on legislation. But proposals include a guest-worker program that would include what Mr. Camarota regards as amnesty in disguise for illegals living here now.

In rich nations, no program of guest or temporary workers has ever led to such workers going home after their time was up. To think they will is "just silly," Camarota says. In Germany, most Turkish "guest" workers have remained. The same is true of South Asians in Britain and North Africans in France.

If a tough law is passed to limit illegals, any plan to send them home would not be enforced, Camarota predicts. Politically powerful business and religious groups would block such action. Making matters more difficult, illegals bear some 380,000 children a year. These babies become US citizens automatically.

Those backing some form of amnesty for illegals - or "unauthorized migrants," as the Pew Hispanic Center calls them - got something of a boost from a new paper by David Card, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley. "Overall, evidence that immigrants have harmed the opportunities of less educated natives is scant," Professor Card concludes.

However, Harvard University economist George Borjas reckons that the inflow of so many immigrants with less than a high school education has depressed the wages of similar American citizens by 7 percent of what they would otherwise be. He charges Card with using a cross-city comparison that ignores the national labor picture.

In turn, Card says that Dr. Borjas has made a "misleading calculation" based on theory rather than real data. The dispute hints at the difficulty of measuring the impact of the immigrant surge in a complex economy.

In a new paper, Borjas raises some doubts as to whether the American "melting pot" will work as well for new immigrants as it has in the past. Large-scale immigration in recent decades has increased the foreign-born share of the US population from 4.7 percent in 1970 to 12.7 percent in 2003.

Borjas wonders whether the children of these people will be molded into a relatively homogenous society by mid-century. A number of factors could make assimilation more difficult now than it was in the 1900s, he says. Manufacturing, which absorbed many low-skilled immigrants in the past, has a shrinking labor force. There is less diversity among new arrivals, with Mexicans making up 30 percent of the immigrant population. The Great Depression created a de facto immigration moratorium, cutting off the supply of new workers to ethnic enclaves for at least a decade. A rising ideology of tolerance in the US ironically reduces the pressures for assimilation and acculturation, he says.

With the rise of multiculturalism, the consensus summarized by the motto of the US seal, "E pluribus, Unum" (Out of many, one), "no longer exists," Borjas concludes.

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