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On Immigration, Compromise Beats Amnesty


Farmworkers pick bok choy in Calexico, Calif., Jan. 22.



Photo:

Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images

So,

Joe Biden

wants to give immigration reform a go. Good luck, Mr. President, but recent history is not on your side and the timing is questionable at best.

I write that as someone who has been calling for decades for immigration reform that includes both better border security and conditional legalization for people who sneaked in. Our immigration system was designed to accommodate the economic needs of the 19th century, not the 21st, and major revisions are long overdue. The past three administrations tried and failed to get the job done.

George W. Bush

had planned to make comprehensive border reform a first-term priority. As a former governor of a border state, he knew the issue inside and out. But the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq war, and low job-approval ratings in his second term conspired against him.

Barack Obama

chose to undertake legally suspect executive actions on immigration instead of negotiating a deal with Republicans in Congress.

Donald Trump

spent four years touting his “beautiful wall” and thrilling his base with anti-immigrant rhetoric.

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Mr. Biden’s immigration proposal prioritizes an eight-year pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented aliens currently living here. “Unlike previous compromise bills,” the Journal reports, “Mr. Biden’s proposal lacks the countermeasures of increased security or deterrence at the border that Republicans have asked for in exchange for legalization.” In other words, Mr. Biden is calling for amnesty now and more border security at some unspecified future date. This is like a boxer leading with his chin.

Besides, the amnesty debate is largely a side issue. Simply legalizing the status of these migrants—most of whom have been in the country for more than a decade—won’t solve the larger problem, which is the imbalance between the number of visas available and the number of foreigners who want them. After World War II, the federal government’s Bracero program extended work visas to Mexican migrants to address a U.S. labor shortage, and the rate of illegal immigration plummeted. The program had its problems but ought to serve as a template. The biggest failure of the 1986 amnesty under

Ronald Reagan

was that it did little to expand ways to come lawfully. Mr. Biden should avoid making the same mistake.

It’s generally agreed that any viable immigration compromise will involve more border security in exchange for more visas. And it’s especially hard to see Republicans dropping their enforcement demands in the current environment. The economy is struggling through a pandemic, tens of millions are out of work, and U.S-bound caravans are being organized in Central America. An amnesty-led immigration overhaul would be difficult in the best of times. In today’s environment, it doesn’t stand a chance.

The president would do better to go small. There is bipartisan support for legalizing immigrants who were brought here unlawfully as children, for instance. And there is legitimate and widespread concern among Republicans that our asylum system is being gamed by people pretending to be refugees. Why not come up with a legislative compromise limited to addressing those two problems?

Most Americans thought Mr. Trump’s wall talk was comical, but if Mr. Biden has interpreted this to mean that Americans don’t much care about border security, he’s wrong. Voters want lawmakers to fix the border, not pretend we don’t need one, and they want immigration policies that put Americans’ interests ahead of the people who want to come here. Mr. Trump may have oversold border security, but he was right to criticize those who undersell it and who claim that domestic terrorism is our only real threat.

There is no doubt that low-skill immigration has economic costs that are not spread evenly throughout society. It puts downward pressure on the wages of Americans without a high school diploma, and illegal immigration stretches the educational and health-care resources of border states. But immigrants compete for work, in the main, with one another, and not with the native-born. They are potential employees and potential customers as well. They keep labor markets tight and competitive while increasing our productivity. They help economies grow. Whether the number of people here illegally is 10 million or 30 million, before the pandemic we had record low rates of unemployment and poverty, and wages were rising fastest for less-skilled workers.

Mr. Biden was elected with a mandate to tackle Covid-19 and revive the economy, and he would be wise to spend his political capital on addressing those problems first. If and when he turns his focus to immigration, history suggests that a massive amnesty scheme probably isn’t the best place to start.

Wonder Land: The Covid vaccination mess calls to mind the catastrophic rollout of ObamaCare and the Obama-Biden response to H1N1. Image: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8

Appeared in the January 27, 2021, print edition.



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