A bold plan to solve America's illegal immigration problem

We can end the political stalemate if we summon the courage to end illegal immigration, provide amnesty at a price, and be more selective about who we welcome into the country.

As the debate on immigration policy intensifies, Americans are caught in a false choice between tougher border protection and amnesty for illegals. A compromise solution that both parties can rally behind is possible – but only if we have a revolution in the way we discuss our national identity and values.

At bottom, we must:

1. Substantially reduce levels of legal immigration and end illegal immigration, while providing amnesty – at a price – to most pre-existing illegal immigrants.

2. Be selective about future immigrants’ country of origin, and terminate multiculturalism as a national value.

Not a right-wing concern

Concerns about immigration are not confined to the right end of the political spectrum or to “xenophobes” and “nativists.” Both of us, we hasten to add, are avid supporters of President Obama.

The consequences of unchecked immigration affect all Americans. The US population in 1900 was about 76 million; today, it is about 310 million, of which about 47 million are Latinos. Richard Lamm observes:

In my twelve years as governor of Colorado, high levels of immigration, predominantly from Mexico, made virtually every major problem more difficult to solve. At least 50 percent of immigrants today come from Latin America, and they are acculturating much more slowly than prior immigration waves. Additionally:

• A substantial proportion of the patients at the Denver Public Hospital are illegal immigrants, virtually all poor and poorly educated.

• The percentage of Hispanic students in Denver public schools has risen quickly, to 54 percent.

• Public housing in Denver is filled with both legal and illegal immigrants.

• Nationwide, 20 percent of our prison space is occupied by foreign-born inmates, disproportionately Latinos.

Fifteen years ago, when these problems were less severe, Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, chair of the bipartisan US Commission on Immigration Reform, called for an end to illegal immigration and a calibration of legal immigration levels to the demonstrated needs of the economy. She understood then what is even more true today: High levels of legal and illegal immigration hurt all Americans, but they especially hurt US citizens, disproportionately black and Latino citizens.

With so many of our citizens unable to find jobs, we must be willing to lay aside our biases and work toward a solution that works for everyone.

Solving the amnesty issue

The first crucial step is to tackle the so-called amnesty issue.

We believe that amnesty for illegal immigrants is a bad idea, proven to encourage subsequent illegal immigration by the experience of the 1986 amnesty. But we also believe that the US government shares the blame because of its failure to enforce immigration laws. We consequently propose the following sketch of a compromise.

First, a bipartisan, commission must certify (1) that our borders are under control, and (2) that an effective system of employment verification is in place. Then, all illegal immigrants who can prove that they have been working or at school in the United States for at least five years are eligible for amnesty.

Each illegal immigrant who applies for amnesty must pay a fine of $10,000 per person, over a five-year period if necessary, before becoming eligible for amnesty. Family eligibility will be limited to the nuclear family: spouses and children who have lived in the United States for five years, or since their marriage/birth.

Some may argue that the $10,000 per person fine is excessive. But look at the numbers. In 2008, remittances from Latino immigrants in the United States, mostly to families in their homelands, totaled about $60 billion – $25 billion alone went to Mexico. That shows that Latinos in America are capable of generating serious income. With five years to pay, the $10,000 fine should be manageable.

This approach could generate as much as $100 billion in new federal revenues.

End multiculturalism

The second crucial step is to end multiculturalism as a national value and be much more selective about who we welcome into our country. Immigration isn’t just about quantity. It’s about quality. Since immigration should serve the national interest, it’s fair to ask:

• What does America’s work force need? What choices leave our children the best, most sustainable America?

• Aren’t there significant differences in the speed and completeness of assimilation among different immigrant groups?

• Doesn’t it make a difference whether we take 1,000 Chinese, Japanese, or Koreans as opposed to 1,000 people from south of our border? Just look at the astonishing Asian success rates, and the failure of so many Latinos to graduate even from high school – and the divisive evolution of Spanish to become, de facto, our second national language.

With an unemployment rate near 10 percent, why are we importing close to a million people a year? America has experienced zero job growth since 2000, yet we have added 10 million legal immigrants plus millions more illegally. By the Jordan Commission standards, we are importing too many immigrants, particularly too many unskilled immigrants.

America in 2050

In 2000, the US population totaled 281 million, of which 36 million, or nearly 13 percent, were Latinos. By 2050, the Census Bureau projects our population will reach 420 million, of which 103 million, or 24 percent, will be Hispanic. That’s nearly a tripling of the Hispanic population in a half-century. Indeed, it means 1 in 4 Americans will be Hispanic. How might that change America and American values?

The late Mexican-American columnist Richard Estrada captured the essence of the problem in a letter he wrote in 1991:

“The problem in which the current immigration is suffused is, at heart, one of numbers; for when the numbers begin to favor not only the maintenance and replenishment of the immigrants’ source culture, but also its overall growth, and in particular growth so large that the numbers not only impede assimilation but go beyond to pose a challenge to the traditional culture of the American nation, then there is a great deal about which to be concerned.”

His point is underscored by the recent reports that more than half of the children born in California, Texas, and New Mexico were born to Latino mothers.

Action steps

The policy implications are clear:

• We must end illegal immigration by enforcing the laws on employment and strengthening our control of our southern border.

• We should calibrate legal immigration annually to (1) the needs of the economy, and (2) past performance of immigrant groups with respect to acculturation and contribution to our society.

• We should declare our national language to be English and discourage the proliferation of Spanish language media.

• We should end birthright citizenship, limiting citizenship by birth to children with at last one parent who is a citizen.

• We should provide immigrants with easy-to-access educational services that facilitate acculturation, including English language, citizenship, and culture.

In his controversial final book, “Who Are We? The Challenges to America’s National Identity,” the late Harvard scholar Samuel Huntington got it right – as he usually did – when he identified growing Latino immigration and avoidance of the melting pot as the principal threat to our unity and progress as a nation.

If we can begin to speak honestly about who we are and where we’d like to go as a nation, we can meet this threat.

Richard Lamm was the governor of Colorado from 1975 to 1987. He is currently the codirector of the Institute for Public Policy Studies at the University of Denver, where he is also a university professor. Lawrence Harrison directs the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School, Tufts University. He is the author, most recently, of “The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change a Culture and Save It from Itself.” Both Gov. Lamm and Mr. Harrison are members of the advisory board of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR); however, the views expressed above do not reflect FAIR’s position on amnesty.

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