There are two questions to consider when deciding whether to stop welcoming illegal aliens. First, do we even need the flow of labor that illegal immigration represents? And second, whatever immigration policy we do adopt, can it be enforced if we make it easy to live here illegally, as we do now?
The answer to both questions is No.
There is no economic need for foreign labor, legal or illegal. There are an estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the United States, with perhaps 7 million of them in the labor market — either working or actively looking for work. But contrary to myths about "jobs Americans won't do," there is no major job category that is dominated by these illegal workers. The Census Bureau groups all jobs in the country into 473 categories, and in 2003-2004, only three small categories had even the tiniest majority of immigrant workers, legal and illegal. The large majority of America's taxi drivers, housekeepers, janitors, dishwashers, landscapers and construction laborers are native-born Americans.
More generally, the supporters of illegal immigration claim that low-skilled labor is a precious resource, like oil, and because we're running out of it at home, we have to import it from abroad. This, too, is false. On the contrary, immigration (legal and illegal) is actually crowding low-skilled Americans out of the labor market altogether. During the first half of this decade, the highest five-year period of immigration in our history, the percentage of working-age, native-born Americans without a high school degree who were in the labor force fell from 59 percent to 56 percent, and for those with only a high school degree, participation in the labor force fell from 78 percent to 75 percent. And American teenagers (aged 15 to 17) took an even bigger hit, seeing their labor force participation fall from 30 percent in 2000 to 24 percent in 2005.
Apart from the specifics of policy, we need to consider how to enforce whatever path we decide on. And here again, welcoming illegal immigrants is a mistake. The key to enforcement of immigration laws is not simply arresting and deporting violators, though that must continue, and even increase. At least as important is making life as an illegal alien as difficult and unattractive as possible, in order to dissuade new illegal settlers and persuade those already here to give up and go back home. The result would be not a magical disappearance of all illegal aliens but rather a reduction in their numbers over time, allowing American businesses — and even the illegals themselves — an opportunity to adjust to the new reality.
Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. This opinion piece is part of a live public policy debate series called Intelligence Squared U.S., which is an initiative of The Rosenkranz Foundation. For more information about the debate series live in New York, go to www.iq2US.org.
We have been pursuing the precise opposite of this strategy for a long time. Our welcome for illegal immigrants has included driver's licenses, in-state tuition subsidies, mortgages, bank accounts and even de facto permission to work on fake or stolen Social Security numbers. It's a wonder we don't have more illegal aliens than we do.