When I listen to the presidential candidates debate immigration policy, I don’t get the feeling that they understand the choice that we have to make, and that includes President Obama. It’s a binary choice. We have to choose one of two options. Option One: Let everyone immigrate to the U.S. who wants to come here in search of a better life. Option Two: Enforce a numerical restriction on the number of people who can immigrate to the U.S. each year in search of a better life.
Limits or no limits. That’s the choice that we have to make. As a lawyer, I like to think I can make the case for each. Here’s the case for Option One, which might also be called Open Borders:
Every American is either an immigrant or the descendent of ancestors who came here from somewhere else in search of a better life. And that includes Native Americans. Setting a numerical limit on immigration forces us to turn away people just like our immigrant ancestors. Open immigration has always been good for America. The nation was founded on open immigration. We built a great republic on open immigration. It’s what distinguishes us from other countries and societies. It’s what makes us exceptional. It’s what grows our economy and expands the skill set of our work force.
But here’s the case for Option Two, a Numerical Limit on Immigration: The American frontier is long gone now. Our population has more than doubled in my lifetime from 151 million in 1950 to 309 million in the 2010 census, and is projected to grow to 438 million by 2050 if we do nothing but maintain the current numerical limits on immigration. Because the U.S. birthrate has fallen to the replacement rate of 2.0 per woman, most if not all net U.S. population growth is attributable to immigration, legal and illegal.
How are we going to provide good jobs, good schools, good housing, and good health care for an additional 120 million people given our track record so far? Where are they going to drive and park their automobiles? How many more millions of barrels of oil will we have to import from the Middle East, or extract from deep water wells on the ocean floor? How many more millions of tons of dirty coal will we have to burn to generate electricity? How many more nuclear power plants, and how much more nuclear waste from those plants will we have to live with? How do we protect the environment and limit greenhouse gas emissions with 120 million more people?
All of those challenges and problems we are currently facing will be made more challenging and difficult if we throw the borders open to all comers.
While I respect the arguments presented by the proponents of Option One, Open Borders, I’m not willing myself to bet the republic that they’re right. And I’m confident that the overwhelming majority of the American people favor Option Two, enforcing a numerical limit on the immigrants entering the U.S. each year. We can’t solve all the world’s problems by allowing all the world’s people to move to the U.S.
Having made the choice, how do we go about implementing an immigration limit? How many immigrants should we allow in each year? How do we choose among the many more who wish to immigrate? Who decides? The answer is that in our representative democracy Congress must decide those questions for us, and Congress has enacted a complicated statutory formula that allows in approximately a million legal immigrants each year in designated categories and preferences.
But how do we enforce that limit given that millions of foreigners have demonstrated their willingness to ignore it and immigrate illegally to the U.S.? The presidential candidates discuss the border fence, technology, and more boots on the ground, as if there was a magic bullet to enforce our numerical limit on immigration.
There is no magic bullet that will solve the illegal immigration problem. But there is a goal that must be achieved, convincing the millions of foreigners ineligible for legal immigration, but considering illegal immigration to the U.S., that the costs to them of illegal immigration outweigh the benefits.
How do we raise the costs and lower the benefits of illegal immigration? All of the above. Complete the fence. Patrol it with more technology and boots on the ground. Increase domestic enforcement of immigration laws. Require all employers to use electronic verification of citizenship or work authorization before hiring anyone. Encourage state and local law enforcement to assist the federal government in enforcing immigration laws.
Do we have to deport 11 million illegal aliens to insure respect for immigration laws? No, we don’t. That’s a complete red herring. All that we have to do is remove more illegal aliens each year than succeed in entering the country, so that the net illegal alien population gradually but visibly declines. That will send the message that needs to be sent, that we are serious about enforcing our immigration laws, and that the costs of violating those laws will exceed the benefits.
That’s what follows from choosing Option Two. Too many politicians keep hoping and searching for a third option. Can’t we just agree on a numerical limit instead of open borders, but then not enforce it? As Newt Gingrich asks, “There has to be some zone between deportation and amnesty.”
No, Newt, there isn’t. It’s a binary choice. Not enforcing our immigration laws sends the same message as open borders. It sets the cost-benefit analysis in favor of unlimited immigration. Which is fine if that’s what we want.
Jan Ting is a Professor of Law at Temple University’s Beasley School of Law and a former Assistant Commissioner for Refugees, Asylum and Parole, Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S. Department of Justice. Jan can be reached at email@example.com.