The United States has an unwritten but plain immigration policy.
The U.S. Border Patrol imposes significant risks on people trying to enter illegally but once inside the country, illegal immigrants usually can find work and remain here. They manage to obtain false documents or work off the books, and are significant shares of the workforce in construction and many service activities.
The reasons are simple. Whether Americans openly condemn or quietly condone illegal immigration, they are happy to have immigrants do the tough and often low-paying jobs native born Americans don’t like.
While federal authorities have engaged in some well publicized raids of factories, workplace enforcement is far from comprehensive. Too many illegals work in small enterprises, as day laborers or in other fluid situations. Moreover, federal agencies get precious little help from state governments that issue drivers licenses, administer social services and admit the children of illegal workers into schools.
Americans of all stripes vote for immigration by who they hire to clean their homes and offices, the restaurants they patronize, and the complicity they tolerate from state governments. Some veil their choices by hiring cleaning services and caterers instead of housekeepers and cooks, but most everyone participates in the fiction that has become U.S. immigration policy.
With widespread complicity by individual citizens and state governments, U.S. immigration laws have about as much meaning as speed limits on highways. Some people get caught but most don’t.
Presidents Clinton and Bush both tolerated weak federal enforcement in the workplace and state government indifference to avoid upsetting Latino voters.
Mr. Clinton was painfully aware that as the grandchildren of European immigrants become more prosperous, they are more likely to vote Republican, and Democrats need Latino voters to remain competitive.
George Bush shrewdly observed Latinos have socially conservative inclinations, and may not necessarily be reliable Democrats—like other minority groups—once they climb a few rungs up the economic ladder.
President Obama is in a tough spot. Republicans in Congress want tougher enforcement as the price for reform, but he can never satisfy them.
More fences and adding to the Border Patrol won’t work. Getting into America is worth so much, poor Latinos find new and more dangerous ways to get into the country.
While many Americans say they want tougher enforcement, few want deported their own cleaning lady or other workers who make their lives easier.
Deporting unneeded immigrants would break up families. Many have children who were born in the United States and are citizens. We cannot deport parents without either forcing them to abandon children or forcing children who are citizens to leave.
Sending back young adults in many cases would constitute an atrocity. Too many were brought here as young children and really have no place to return. Latin voters won’t tolerate deporting those young adults—and neither should the rest of us.
The Dream Act, which failed in Congress last year, would have provided a pathway to citizenship for young adults through higher education or military service. Discouraging college and military service, which often provides technical training and other intangible qualities, only increases the pool of workers in the United States without the skills necessary to compete. It lowers the wages of already hard pressed Americans with only a high school diploma or less.
American society is premised on the opportunity for upward mobility. Almost every native born American completes high school, and about two thirds obtain some post-secondary technical or university education.
If American children are going to keep doing better jobs than their parents, Americans must accept immigrants to clean hotel rooms, work in meat packing plants and the like. Present laws just don’t provide for enough immigrants to enter legally to do those jobs. That is why so many foreign workers are here illegally, and we are going to have to let most of them stay.
The illegal immigration problem won’t be solved until employers, federal and state governments, and citizens together recognize the need for significant numbers of new Americans each generation, and accept their common responsibility for enacting and respecting laws necessary to manage the process.
By championing education and military service for young adults among illegal immigrants, and asking Congress to enact naturalization processes for illegal workers to win citizenship, President Obama is challenging all Americans to get behind such a process.
On immigration reform, Americans should get behind their president.
Peter Morici is a professor at the Smith School of Business, University of Maryland, and former Chief Economist at the U.S. International Trade Commission.