Immigration Reform

A significant immigration fix is long overdue, and I and a huge majority of voters I meet are extremely frustrated with Washington for not getting any kind of reform passed. This shouldn’t be a Democrat or Republican issue — it’s time we stopped yelling slogans at each other and worked together to fix this long-standing problem.

No reasonable American thinks people should enter our country illegally, and I’ve yet to meet a Wyomingite who thinks companies that knowingly hire illegal immigrants should go unpunished. But both things keep on happening in America, courtesy of a Congress that can’t get out of its own way.

Americans have long been in favor of a physical barrier on our border (under George W. Bush in 2006 the Senate passed the Secure Fences Act by an overwhelming 80 to 19). And at the same time, a Fox News poll shows that only 19% of Americans are in favor of wholesale deportations — a conclusion shared by both Republicans and Democrats. When asked if illegal immigrants who speak English, hold a job, and are willing to pay any back taxes should be provided a path to citizenship, 87% of Republicans and 96% of Democrats responded yes.

Despite the clear grounds for bi-partisan solutions to our immigration problem, here is the history of our Congress toward immigration legislation — and keep in mind this all came after a seven-year study and report on the issue by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform (1990 to 1997).

In 2005 the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act was introduced by Senators Kennedy and McCain. The bill was never voted on.

The Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 passed both chambers but a compromise bill was never agreed to.The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 failed to pass a procedural vote, and died.

In 2013 the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act (S.744) was introduced by the Senate but was never taken up by the House.

Despite a nation full of citizens who fundamentally agree on the terms of how to solve our immigration problem fully twenty years after that seven-year study, our Senators and Representatives have utterly failed to create a solution they were even willing to vote on.

My question: In what world do we study something for seven years, and then not have a solution after an additional twenty years? And the answer is: A world where we as voters enforce no penalties at the voting booth for inaction.

Our elected officials need to suffer consequences of their inaction on sensible legislation that actually addresses the problem, but instead we’ve let them get away with exploiting the immigration issue as a way to win votes.

Here is a four-part policy proposal on how we as a country should once and for all fix our immigration situation:

  1. Strategically and cost effectively harden the border.

  2. Tie Border Security Cooperation into NAFTA.

  3. Path to legal status, but not amnesty or citizenship.

  4. Reduce the incentives to come across the border.

These measures which I describe in detail are a cost effective and politically viable path to reducing the issue of border security. Here’s some details on each element:

Strategically and cost effectively harden the border

Our border remains more porous than necessary, and we need to continue to take steps to make it more difficult to enter the US illegally. We can do that by implementing President Trump’s recommendation to expand the manpower at the border by 5,000 people, and continuing to fund the Secure Fence Act, which has taken on the nickname of “the wall” — although everyone now agrees the smart approach is not a 2,000-mile concrete barrier.

The President and others agree that this isn’t “all or nothing.” This is a clear case where cost effective reduction in the scale of the problem is a success in its own right. The level of illegal immigrants in the U.S. stabilized in recent years, and while we have no way of knowing exactly how many illegal immigrants are in the country today, everyone seems to agree to the rough math. The number of illegals peaked in 2007 at about 12 million, dropped to about 11 million in 2009, and has since stabilized. During this same period, the U.S. economy has grown at about 2% per year. That means between 2007 and 2017 the economy has grown about 22%, while the illegal immigrant population has decreased by 9%.

We currently have physical barriers across roughly 25% of our southern border, and since the Secure Fence Act was implemented we have seen improvement in our ability to detect, detain, and deport entrants at the border. As President Trump also concluded, a 2,000-mile wall will cost far more than $21 billion to build, as anyone who’s examined the problem knows. Using the suggested dimensions, the concrete and steel alone would cost $28 billion. Most current estimates are around $50 billion for a wall that only covers half of the border.

Even for a country our size, that’s is a lot of money. With $21 trillion in current debt, the billions required for a massive wall, would necessarily limit our ability to rebuild bridges and dams, invest in economical energy self-sufficiency, and retrain our work force — all projects that will have far greater impact on rebuilding the middle class than a coast-to-coast concrete wall.

Nonetheless, President Trump is correct that we can, and should, use additional physical barriers to prevent border crossings. But a 2,000-mile, 55 feet high wall made of reinforced concrete is impractical, not cost effective for the benefits provided, and has the potential to cause significant environmental damage in border areas.

There are stretches of land where the ground cover is unstable sand — such as California’s Algodones Dunes — that stretch for dozens of miles. It’s hard to build a durable concrete wall on shifting sands. Many areas of the border are privately owned ranchland, which could create economic hardship for those ranchers. Two-thirds of the land is state-or privately-owned, so the Federal Government would have to use eminent domain to take possession of hundreds of miles of property, much of which would be subject to litigation and then market price purchases from the federal treasury. Then there’s tribal land, which would be even more complicated for the Federal Government to seize or use.

As the President has recently suggested, for a significantly lower cost we can address weaknesses in the existing 25% of our barriers, and supplement other areas that are best protected by physical barriers and electronic surveillance. We do not need to rely on an ancient system of concrete and steel to protect our borders — instead we can think about a modern 21st century approach that uses high-tech surveillance and response rather than a Great Wall of America across 2,000 miles of desert, National Parks, backyards, and ranchland. We’re the most technologically advanced country in the world, and we should be acting like it in our approach to protecting our southern border.

Tie Border Security Cooperation into NAFTA

Most experts agree that border security is more effective if both sides of the border are under surveillance and enforcement. The U.S. needs to re-think and reposition Mexico from being an enemy in illegal immigration to becoming our collaborative ally. We could do this in conjunction with the proposed renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement. We need look no further than our northern border — which is more than twice as long — to see how this might work.

After 9–11, the U.S. and Canada began exploring how better to protect our respective borders through cooperation versus the traditional model where each side just takes care of its own problems. Since then, a set of cooperative agreements were effectively put in place that benefited both sides.

For example, for the U.S., protection now begins inside Canadian territory, and involves innovative cooperation between our two countries. U.S. Customs agents are permitted to work on Canadian soil, sharing both enforcement duties and databases. The two security agencies work as a team to stop illegal activities and the flow of unauthorized or dangerous persons into the U.S. before they reach the border.

In another example of cooperation, Canadian agents are stationed on U.S. Coast Guard vessels (40% of our border with Canada is water) so that when we chase smugglers or illegal border crossers, pursuits don’t have to halt at the Canadian border. With Canadian Border Services agents on U.S. ships, the joint mission can continue back and forth over the dividing line in joint exercises ranging from surveillance to apprehension.

This is not to suggest that some similar measures are not in place on our southern border. Especially as it relates to fighting drug trafficking, the two countries have explored and implemented activities including the 2007 Mérida Initiative. The cost-effectiveness of “playing nice” with Mexico and providing incentives for the two governments to work in deep cooperation has enormous advantages. On the other hand, a confrontational, non-cooperative strategy would have not only severe impact on illegal immigration, but also potentially devastating effects on our efforts to thwart drug trafficking.

The cost effectiveness of treaties that allow U.S. border officers to work side-by-side with their Mexican counterparts — inside the Mexican border — far outweigh the cost and personal toll of harsh enforcement at the border, or the nearly impossible task of locating people once they enter our country illegally. While we already enjoy some cooperation, there is logic to tying further cross-border programs into an economic treaty such as NAFTA.

Path to legal status, but not amnesty or citizenship

President Trump and most experts agree that mass deportation is not a solution. There is no appetite in this country for mass deportation — and in the 2016 Republican platform any reference to deportation (other than of convicted criminals) was not included. Both the Republican Speaker of the House and the Republican Senate Majority leader are not in favor of mass deportations. And the President himself has backed off of any statements about mass deportations.

Republican and Democratic politicians all agree that it’s not a practical, economically realistic, or a politically acceptable way of dealing with the incumbent illegal Mexican immigrants. Rounding up eleven million people who come from a dozen or more countries around the world and are largely integrated into our country with jobs, furniture, apartments and children in our school districts isn’t practical, humane, or cost effective. However, by granting conditional amnesty (not citizenship), we can then implement harsh penalties on employers who, going forward, hire people illegally which will have far greater long-term impact.

Undocumented immigrants do not pay taxes while using local, state, and federal services (for example, schooling or emergency medical services). It’s estimated that in California alone illegal immigrants have cost between $9 billion and $38 billon. Of course, we don’t know the actual number — but we do know it’s a big number, and that it’s unfair to allow people into our country that use services but ask the rest of us to pay for those services.

Given that the existing eleven million are not going to be deported, because neither President Trump nor the republican congress supports such an effort, we need to accept the situation. We also need to recognize that we are the fools, by allowing eleven million people to live in the country, hold down jobs and use our school and our streets and healthcare system, and not pay taxes. The existing policy of not pursuing mass deportation, yet not granting any legal status, means eleven million people remain in the country for free.

Conveniently, we have a Green Card program in place, and we should, under this existing program, find a methodology to consider which of the illegals might be candidate for a grant of legal residency. That would make them residents but not citizens and would also classify them as “Tax Residents.” Current undocumented immigrants, given that consideration become eligible to reside and work here, must pay taxes like anyone else, and are subject to all our laws. As is true with the Green Card program, if they commit anything other than a petty crime, they can, and should, be deported.

Our current Green Card program requires an application, demonstration of financial sponsorship, background check, and an interview. This vetting process, already in place, allows us to require a minimum level of language proficiency while screening out criminals and those unable to work.

We’d need to staff up for such an effort, which would be offset by a simple flat fee of $500 for an individual application and $1,000 for a family application. There would be no preferential path to citizenship. They will need to apply under existing rules and procedures.

It’s true, those that entered illegally will benefit under an expedited Legal Resident program, and that’s not fair. But life isn’t always fair, and we have a country to run. But of the three alternatives: do nothing (what we’ve done for about forty years now), mass deportation (unsupported by the President, Congress, and 90% of Americans), or resolving the problem once and for all — well, only one puts the matter to rest.

Reduce the Incentives to Cross the Border

Most crossings occur by people who see the likelihood of a better life in the United States. That draw can be greatly reduced at no cost to the taxpayers by making it harder to find work for those crossing the border illegally. But this can only be done if we have taken the step to granting legal residency to the eleven million who are already here. For those that have a hard time swallowing the pill of granting a benefit to those that illegally jumped the line, they should recognize that by doing so, we can then implement a strategy to massively reduce the incentive for others to cross the border.

Currently, most of the illegal immigrants with jobs in the U.S. (estimated at seven million) operate under a framework where the state, local, and Federal governments largely look the other way while employers knowingly hire illegal immigrants or make no effort to verify an employee’s nationality or status.

Not all of this looking the other way is out of disregard for the law. The Immigration and Nationality Act penalizes companies not just for hiring illegal immigrants, but in the other direction subjects them to consequences if they deny employment to a legal worker. Specifically, employers are fined if they “Request more or different documents than are required to verify employment eligibility, reject reasonably genuine-looking documents, or specify certain documents over others.” This leaves the safest path, and most expedient path, is for any employer to be generous in accepting any “reasonably genuine-looking document.”

Given that the eleven million illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. would be granted legal residence status and a Green Card, the U.S. should adopt a simple standard where anyone applying for a job must present a driver’s license or a Green Card. The Real ID Act of 2005 already places standards for our 50 states that prevent them from issuing standard drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants — so this does not require any change in current policy. And by providing employers with a simple standard for verifying employment, we protect our responsible employers from unfair fines, and protect American workers from being denied jobs in cases where they might be incorrectly suspected of being illegal.

But counterfeit Green Cards and driver’s licenses are a potential problem to this solution. With a few minutes on the internet anyone can have a fake Green Card produced. The antidote to this would be a small change to the current Federal IRS system. Currently, an employee submits a W-4 form that specifies their social security number, address, marital status, and requested number of tax allowances. All of this is already in place. What needs to happen is for the employer to also enter in the form of identification submitted and the identification number. When the W-4 is submitted, the name, social security number, and identification are cross-referenced for validity. As well, to mostly eliminate someone using another person’s identification, we have the technology to flag when a single holder of a social security number is submitting paycheck information from multiple jobs that could not be happening simultaneously.

Having solved for the issue of practical residency status, as well as making compliance straightforward with minimal additional work for the employer, we can then materially raise the consequences for employers that have hired workers illegally. Currently, in cases where there are violations, the fines for first time offenders range from $375 to $539 per illegal immigrant. Employers hire illegal immigrants because it makes good economic sense. Having taken away the ambiguity in identifying legal residency, we can then change that economic calculus by assessing enormously punitive fines for violations. Fines should begin at $2,500 per illegal immigrant for a single violation and increase to $5,000 for violations that indicate a pattern of violation (which would be formulaic depending upon the size of the employee base). Repeated and knowing violations would result in criminal charges against the officers of the company.

By making it uneconomic to hire illegal immigrants, we alter the reason to cross the border in the first place. Simply alerting this equation — which does not cost taxpayers anything because it piggy backs on existing forms of ID and IRS paperwork — would do more to stem the tide of immigration than would walls and arrests. Furthermore, it surgically addresses the principal concern of illegal immigration — that they are taking away jobs from legal residents by confronting the problem at the place of employment.

Nearly all Americans believe that we have a right to administer our borders and our immigration laws in an orderly way, and that porous borders allowing people to slip into the country at night and disappear into a population of 350 million is not good public policy. We also need laws that are not selectively enforced, where immigrants have one set of rules if they live in a city that declares itself a “Sanctuary City”, and an entirely different set of rules otherwise. Illegal immigrants who have committed crimes other than petty offenses should be deported — the same rules that apply to legal "alien" U.S. residents. Finally, whether the argument is based on compassion or economics or simple practicality, there is no good case for mass deportation.

These four steps are not expensive, can be funded largely in the existing budgets for border security, and should not become partisan issues. They also line up with what most Americans want. Our politicians need to stop making the matter of immigration and border security a political issue and get down to implementing solutions to a solvable problem. We need public servants who will do their job by solving a problem where Americans of all political parties are largely aligned.