Immigration’s Border-Enforcement Myth

The 1986 law, with its provisions for legalization and increased border enforcement, aimed to correct the problem. Since then, the United States has spent $263 billion on immigration enforcement, much of it along the southern border. These efforts have slowed, but not eliminated, unauthorized entry. They also had the unintended consequence of encouraging undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States rather than risk the increased dangers that became attached to seasonal migration.

Migration is propelled by irrepressible human desires for family unification, economic improvement and physical safety. It is very difficult for national states to stop migration, short of taking draconian measures that democratic societies will not tolerate. More than 80 percent of Americans support legalization for the undocumented. Large majorities oppose mass deportations, because they are cruel, as well as President Trump’s proposed wall along the United States-Mexico border, because it will be ineffectual as well as expensive.

If we are to have restrictions on immigration, they ought to be reasonable, allow for family unification, operate in sync with the labor market and give refuge to those fleeing disaster and persecution. We can enact statutes of limitations on unauthorized presence (say five years, or even 10), which would recognize not just the inevitability of migrants’ entry but also their incorporation into society. The United States itself had such a policy once — before the National Origins Act of 1924.

But today, the mainstream of both political parties clings to the false logic of the 1980s, which yoked legalization to enforcement. This time around the Democrats are in an especially weak position, not least because extremists in both Congress and the White House are holding the Dreamers hostage to a radical nativist agenda.

On Thursday, White House officials issued a take-it-or-leave-it proposal, which would legalize Dreamers in exchange for funding the wall, accelerating deportations, eliminating some family preferences and scrapping the diversity-visa lottery. Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, has sponsored an even more restrictive bill that would reduce legal immigration by 43 percent by eliminating most family preferences. Mr. Cotton, Mr. Trump’s policy adviser Stephen Miller and other hard-liners envision a fortress America that welcomes only skilled people from predominantly white countries, people who in general show little interest in moving to America.

Whichever vision prevails, restrictions on legal immigration will lead to more undocumented immigration from the global south. Idealized immigrants from Europe aren’t going to pick lettuce or wash dishes, just as most native-born white Americans don’t. And the nativists will have nothing more helpful to propose than heartless policing and deportation to discipline an underclass of nonwhite people that their own policies created.

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