Commentary Magazine


Getting Real about Immigration

Many of the commenters on my earlier post ¡Viva la Inmigración! take me to task for not distinguishing between legal and illegal immigration. The former is commendable, they suggest; the latter, despicable. This antipathy toward lawbreaking is understandable, if sometimes overly zealous. I mean, c’mon: among all the problems we face—from paying for the baby boomers’ retirement to defeating al Qaeda—how high a priority should we assign to the “problem” of millions of people wanting to move here to take jobs that few if any Americans are willing or able to perform? Even if you do think this is a major problem—and I admit that a small portion of the immigrant population consists of criminals and freeloaders—the question is, what do you do about it?

The immigration restrictionists want to erect ever more formidable defenses along our border to keep immigrants out and to send the authorities out to round up and ship home all the illegal immigrants already here. I don’t think either of these approaches is a very realistic solution to the immigration “problem.”

No matter how much more we spend on the Border Patrol or what kind of fences we erect, immigrants will continue to show up in the U.S. as long as the economic opportunities here are so much greater than in the countries south of us. The U.S.-Mexico border is the longest land frontier between a first-world and a third-world country, and it is inevitable that workers will continue to come here in search of opportunity. Since we are not about to authorize a shoot-on-sight policy, nor turn our southern frontier into a Berlin Wall, it seems unlikely that security measures alone will appreciably stem the inflow. Nor is it terribly realistic to expect that we will divert the attention of overstretched police departments to round up millions of illegals already here—most of them gainfully employed.

The obvious solution would seem to be twofold. First, provide more slots for foreigners to move here legally, whether to work in the fields of the Central Valley or the high-tech labs of Silicon Valley. This alone has the potential to reduce dramatically the number of illegal immigrants, allowing law-enforcement agencies to concentrate their resources on that tiny number of wrong-doers—drug smugglers, terrorists, and the like—trying to cross our frontiers illegally. Second, provide a path to citizenship for those who have already come here and are working hard. I have previously suggested one such avenue—service in the military. But there should be others as well.

I suppose this will get me branded as “soft” on illegal immigration. I prefer to think I’m realistic. All the sound and fury from the nativist Right about “illegals” only alienates—much to the political detriment of the Republican party—honest, hard-working Hispanics who are already here, without solving the problem of illegal immigration.