On the border
The Economist, Lexington:
The best solution so far to one of America's thorniest problems
THERE are many reasons for moderate pragmatists to be irritated by the culture wars that are consuming American politics. They are polarising an already polarised electorate; they are reigniting the politics of personal destruction; and they are filling the airwaves with mind-numbing debates about filibusters. But the biggest reason is that they are diverting attention from other pressing problems.
Immigration is a good example. There is no doubt that America's system is badly broken, with, perhaps, 10m immigrants working in the country illegally and another 1m arriving every year; there is equally no doubt that this imposes huge costs on the country in terms of lawlessness and human misery. On May 12th, two powerful senators, Ted Kennedy and John McCain, proposed a sensible solution. Yet their arguments risk being lost in the babble about John Bolton and judges.
America's present immigration law flies in the face of economic reality. The economy is creating far more low-end jobs than American workers are willing to take (the proportion of native-born Americans dropping out of high school has fallen from half in 1960 to just 10% today). Entire industries—agriculture, food-processing, construction—rely on cheap immigrant labour. But America's yearly quotas are far too small to satisfy its needs.
The resulting black economy undermines the rule of law. Check into a hotel, and you may be the beneficiary of a complex chain of law breaking. The hotel owner may have hired illegal immigrants. The valet-parker may have paid $2,000 to be smuggled across the border by a criminal gang. Several of his friends may have died trying to get in (last year 200 immigrants, including a three-year-old child, died in the Arizona desert). The criminal gang may have engaged in shoot-outs with immigration officials or rival gangs. His $2,000 fee may have been used to subsidise drug-smuggling. Tamar Jacoby, a Manhattan Institute scholar who is a beacon of light in a foggy debate, likens the current immigration laws to prohibition: impossible to enforce, they encourage a whole sub-culture of criminality.
The black economy also threatens two things pretty much all Americans hold dear. The first is the cherished tradition of assimilation. Illegal immigrants live in a shadow world where they are reluctant to put down roots and even visit their children's schools. The other is national security. The easiest way for a terrorist to enter the country without a trace is through Arizona. Forget about visas and background checks. All you need to do is hire a coyote: he will smuggle you across the border, no questions asked, and then plug you into a criminal network that specialises in giving people false identities and hiding them in a huge illegal sub-culture.
The Kennedy-McCain bill is the result of ten months of hard slog. The two senators were still hammering out the details the day before they unveiled their plan. But the product is a hard-nosed law that tries to align America's immigration laws to the economic realities without rewarding illegal behaviour.
The bill provides both illegal workers and law-breaking employers with a ladder out of the shadow world they now inhabit. Illegal workers will be allowed to apply for temporary work permits (which will not be tied to specific jobs, as in earlier schemes). And employers will be allowed to hire immigrant workers if they can demonstrate that no Americans want their jobs. But at the same time the bill avoids being soft on illegal immigration. Any illegal immigrants in the country will pay hefty fines, as well as their back taxes, and go to the back of the queue for green cards. Employers will also face much stricter penalties. Money will be pumped into border security and a new system of tamper-proof identity cards.
Jumping over the congressional barrier
Plenty of people on both sides of the spectrum want to stop this bill. The AFL-CIO union combine has declined to endorse it. A mainly Republican anti-immigration caucus in the House contains around 70 diehards united behind the idea “What part of illegal don't you understand?”; they have just demonstrated their legislative muscle by pushing through a bill that makes it harder for illegals to get driving licences. John Cornyn, the chairman of the Senate sub-committee on immigration, has made it clear that he's opposed to any bill with a “work and stay” provision. Meanwhile, the White House, which has been badly burned on Social Security reform, is reluctant to spend significant amounts of political capital on an issue that so divides Republicans.
Yet immigration reformers also have muscle on their side. Employers' groups and some unions are behind the bill. So are many border-state politicians who know the status quo means chaos. And there is the clout of the two sponsors. Mr Kennedy remains the most determined legislative warhorse in the Senate. Mr McCain is a charismatic reformer with a broad constituency (particularly in the media). Both men are past masters at pushing complicated bipartisan legislation through Congress, including far-reaching reforms of education and campaign finance. They have already recruited Joe Lieberman and Sam Brownback.
The reformers' most important ally, though, is common sense. America has spent millions of dollars trying to tighten up its borders only to see the situation get worse. It now relies on illegal workers to pick its vegetables and build its buildings. Closing the border is impossible without some sort of legalisation for the millions in the country; mass deportation would do irreparable harm both to America's economy and to its traditions as an immigrant-friendly nation.
The problem for Messrs Kennedy and McCain is that common sense needs the oxygen of publicity if it is to breathe. And for the moment all that oxygen is being consumed by tedious debates about the virtues of filibusters.
Crosspost on Redneck's Revenge