The Shutdown’s Unanswered Question: How Do We Fix Immigration?

While the federal government has reopened, the focus is now even stronger on the issue of immigration and a possible border wall as negotiation efforts begin for a long-term funding solution. What that solution is, exactly, has considerable political, cultural and national security implications.

President Trump has made funding for a wall the central requirement of any measure to avoid a second shutdown, but beyond a wall, making substantial headway on the immigration question would be a remarkable accomplishment indeed, given the extraordinary complexity of the subject. There is a growing anticipation that perhaps the current standoff might compel formulation of a comprehensive solution, which has so far proven elusive.

There are several facets to the overall problem, which reforms going back decades have taken stabs at without satisfying any completely:

  1. Border security
  2. The economic imperative for illegal labor
  3. The persistent question of what to do with the millions who are already in the country illegally, including those brought as small children
  4. The even larger question of what, if anything, to do regarding legal immigration
  5. The political aspect

Here is what a comprehensive solution could look like if full advantage of the current window of opportunity were to be taken.

Border Security

Border security is the hill on which President Trump has chosen to make his political stand. About half of the illegal immigrant population in the U.S. is from Mexico, which would strongly suggest that securing the southern border ought to be a priority if the aim is to reduce illegal immigration.

Sealing the 2,000 mile southern frontier is a gargantuan task, but one which technological progress has rescued from impossibility. The “wall” of which Trump speaks is – or ought to be – a metaphor for overall border security, of which a physical wall, where feasible, is a necessary part. Building a physical barrier is not in itself the solution to the overall dilemma, but given the scope of the problem, any discussion of immigration reform must start with the necessary first aid of closing the physical gaps that are so heavily exploited along the Mexican border.

Details ought to be left to the professionals, but $5 billion for border security is not an unreasonable figure.

Illegal Labor

The economic requirement in several sectors for cheap immigrant labor serves indisputably as an incentive for illegal crossing. The number of illegals in the United States dropped significantly during the years of the Great Recession. The primary role of any producer in the marketplace is to reduce costs, and the simple and persistent fact is that illegals fill a number of jobs in this country.

Properly addressing this part of the problem consists of two parts: one focusing on the duties of the prospective employer, and the other providing a legal framework for matching immigrant workers with host jobs.

The first part is somewhat delicate, in that any financial requirement placed on the employers will be passed along to consumers in the form of higher costs. But failing to address the employer side of things will only serve to further financially incentivize illegal immigration. A combination of an efficient E-verify system with a system granting temporary legal work status – such as the “red card” – would serve to satisfy the labor need in a more orderly and less chaotic manner than the current situation permits.

Illegal Immigrants

We are then left with the question of what to do with the millions already here illegally. Sending them all a postcard, let alone a legal summons, would be an enormous undertaking. Any sort of mass roundup and deportation effort would require a police state to rival China’s or the former Soviet Union’s. On the other hand, granting amnesty threatens our country’s rule of law.

The problem is daunting, but some of the larger aspects of it could be attenuated. Among those counted as illegal aliens are those brought across the border illegally as minor children. These are among the most sympathetic of the illegal population, and it makes sense to include legalization of their situation in exchange for adequate border security measures.

Streamlining the Current Process

No immigration reform package will be close to complete without some movement towards simplification and streamlining of legal immigration. The immigration system is as convoluted and complicated as one could expect from any government-run operation. Much like the tax code, the cumbersome immigration process encourages bypassing of the system. There is no reason a qualified immigrant should have to wait a decade for admittance.

The ultimate goal of our nation’s immigration laws, which must guide comprehensive immigration reform, is to provide an orderly and simple system of admittance that protects the security of the country and allows for the assimilation of the individual immigrant into our culture and nation. Simple, clear laws guided by principle are by definition easier to enforce. And once movement over the border is properly controlled and a relatively simple, enforceable set of laws are in place, the question then becomes whether there is a limit to the assimilative powers of the U.S. – at what point is the capacity of the nation to assimilate new immigrants overwhelmed?

We now have an opportunity for federal lawmakers and the President to come together on a reform package which balances the welcoming and philanthropic impulse natural to Americans with the Solomonic realization that no sovereign country at anytime, anywhere, abandons its authority to govern traffic over its borders. One hopes that it is not too much to wish for, that concern for what is right for the nation might win out over petty partisan considerations fueled by blind nativism one side and open-border fantasy on the other.