Friday, June 8, 2007

Welcome to America

Welcome to America, where Senators vote for amendments they oppose in order to topple bills they don't like, thereby making immigrants less welcome in America. Such careful strategy by Senators opposed to the immigration reform bill sent immigration reform packing, at least for now.

I am woefully ignorant on all issues relating to immigration. Are there 12 million illegal immigrants in the country, or 20 million? Do immigrants, legal and illegal, undermine wages for American workers, or do they promote so much economic growth that everyone is advantaged? Do aliens take "jobs that Americans won't do" or would Americans do any job if only employers offered the appropriate wage for it? I can only guess.

But I don't think one has to be an expert to form this basic opinion: why don't we choose a policy on immigration and then actually enforce it? What we seem to have now is a plan whereby we theoretically prohibit undocumented aliens from entering the country and particularly from working here, but in practice we allow the rules to be openly and notoriously violated. We do this, I presume, because it serves vital interests to have large numers of aliens available for work. I'm a law professor, not an economist, but it sure seems like having millions of extra workers around would lower wages and make employers happy. And employers are even happier that so many of the workers don't have legal status -- such workers probably won't complain about unsafe working conditions, unpaid overtime, arbitrary firing, and all the other practices that make companies more profitable.

If we're going to prohibit employment of undocumented aliens, why not really prohibit it? My unexpert guess is that it would be quite difficult to stop illegal immigration by securing the borders, but not so hard to stop it by taking away the incentive for it. The key would be to really make it illegal to employ illegal aliens, and then to enforce that rule against employers.

At the moment, the law prohibits employers from "knowingly" employing illegal aliens, but all employers are really required to do is have their employees produce a document that appears on its face to be genuine.

Even this requirement is ludicrously underenforced. Do you know how many employers were prosecuted in 2003 for hiring illegal aliens? Four. That's right, four. That's not a typo for four thousand or even four hundred -- the number is four.

But criminal prosecution is a serious matter. Employment of illegal aliens would probably be adequately deterred by civil fines. So, against how many employers did the government initiate civil fines in 2004? Three! And that's not a typo either.

In 1986, we granted amnesty to most illegal aliens then in the country but promised to crack down on subsequent illegal immigration by making it illegal to employ undocumented workers. The result of our absurd underenforcement of this rule is 12 million more illegal aliens.

Look, I admit again that I don't really know anything about immigration. But I do know that it's crazy to have all our policy planning undone by utter lack of enforcement.

If we want to let everybody in, fine. If we want to keep people out, fine. I don't really have a dog in this hunt. But pick a sensible policy, put it in place, and then enforce it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hello professor, I am one of your
former students, albeit a drop-out,
who visited your site to
find out what you might have
written about the national health
care reform. My ex was a Mexican
student who became eventually
naturalized by marrying me, a
Japanese American born in the USA,
and I may have more insight in
some of the aspects on the
immigration issues. One thing
I strongly feel as a female is that,
illegal immigrants in the States
satisfy working women's domestic
needs, allowing well educated
females with high career
aspirations to move up the social
ladder while at the same time
raising a family - a very difficult
task in a developed country like
Japan where the society is rather
cohesive and there is no longer
any class of people serving as
domestic servants. Our birth
rate was only 1.26 in 2005.
In countries like Mexico or India,
where there is such an income
disparity between the wealthy
and the poor, there are nationals
who work as domestic workers
in order to support their
families. I am not saying what is
good or bad. But having a vibrant
workforce within a country
does contribute to the population
growth, a necessary condition
for national economic growth
as a whole. Lastly, I totally
agree to your point that policy
enforcement is essential, because
ultimately that serves the cause
of human rights. Regards.