Acton Commentary

The Bush Immigration Plan: A step in the right direction


After the colossal failure of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, something had to be done. Eight million undocumented immigrants later, President Bush has proposed a radical change to the federal government’s immigration policy. His plan is not perfect, but it is a positive step toward helping people find jobs and fill employment gaps in our economy.

The president’s proposals potentially provide legal status to millions of undocumented workers in the United States. He would offer renewable three-year visas to illegal immigrants already working in the United States. Additionally, foreign applicants who are newly hired for jobs in the U.S. could also apply for legal status. The proposed measures essentially grant amnesty to millions of undocumented workers, allowing them—at least for the three-year period the visa is in effect—to travel freely between their homes countries and the United States. Moreover, as a legal immigrant, the worker would enjoy rights to minimum wages and due process.

Among the drawbacks in the plan is the requirement that employers demonstrate that no Americans want the jobs available before they bring in temporary workers from abroad. Second, immigrants might be put in a weak position, because their visas would be connected to their employers. If illegal immigrants apply for visas, the government is able to keep tabs on them. After three years, if the government doesn't renew the temporary visa, the immigrant could be deported. Finally, the policy is unclear about whether or not such immigrants could ever apply for permanent citizenship.

The United States is the most prosperous nation in the world with a long history of both legal and illegal immigration. For centuries, immigrants have risked their lives to find ways to use their gifts and provide for their families, often taking jobs that others do not want. In fact, massive group immigration is an ongoing fact of human history. Thomas Sowell’s grand study, Migration and Cultures: A World View , reminds us of the scope of that movement. In the past three centuries, 70 million people emigrated from Europe, with nearly 50 million coming to the United States (35 million between 1830 and 1930). With migrants often come resentment and suspicion, another phenomenon of long standing.

Nearly 4 million people emigrated from Ireland to the U.S. during the nineteenth century. The Irish were stereotyped as a lazy band of drunken brawlers and they worked primarily in the low-skilled labor market. During the massive Irish immigration of the 1840s and 1850s immigrants were greeted with signs that read “Irish Need Not Apply.”

In the same century, five million Germans migrated to the United States. Large numbers became farmers and day laborers. These Germans were often criticized for isolating themselves from the American mainstream with church services conducted, business transacted, and newspapers printed exclusively in their native tongue.

Almost 26 million people emigrated from Italy between 1876 and 1976. The early Italian immigrants took jobs that others despised at the bottom of the occupational ladder, such as sewer and sanitation workers. Italians also cordoned themselves into enclaves, their neighborhoods of 1880 to 1910 often more segregated than those of blacks.

The story is much the same for the Jewish, African, Chinese, Japanese, Mexican, and Puerto Rican immigrants over the past century. In every case, immigrants fill economic needs in their new society.

Some Americans have an artificially inflated expectation of wages for jobs requiring few skills. So-called menial jobs like landscaping, food service, unskilled construction jobs, sanitation, housekeeping, retail, and farming rejected by many in our unskilled labor force. Many immigrants, on the other hand, are willing to work these jobs in an attempt to begin to build capital for a better life.

We forget that “menial labor” often produces the start-up capital necessary for successive generations to achieve economic upward mobility. For example, the first Kennedy arrived in 1848 as a laborer and died a laborer. His grandsons, however, went to college and his great-grandsons became prominent in American politics.

A study by the Urban Institute shows that immigrants comprise 11 percent of the U.S. population, but 14 percent of all workers and 20 percent of low-wage workers. Without them our economy suffers. Moreover, unless developing international economies grow dramatically, these numbers are only likely to expand. The president is taking decisive action to benefit a U.S. economy dependent on immigrants.

When comparing per-capita income between the U.S. and developing countries, the arrival of a wave of immigrants should come as no surprise. When 40 percent of Mexicans live below the poverty line, migrating for better opportunities makes sense, as it did for the Irish, Germans, and Italians before them.

A compassionate approach to immigration requires that we recognize the inherent dignity of all people regardless of their country of origin. The human person created for work finds life within the context of labor and family. If people desire work to provide for family and contribute to community life, then we should welcome and embrace them.

President Bush’s proposal is not without problems. A major concern surrounding the plan is its seeming exoneration of illegal immigration. Granting amnesty to illegal aliens is unfair to those who have abided by the law. Changing the rules mid-game is a dangerous threat to the rule of law itself, on which American prosperity is founded.

But the president is not faced with an ideal situation; he is faced with millions of illegal immigrants already resident in the United States, many holding down jobs. The plan seeks to manage the absorption of immigrants in a way consistent with economic realities and with this nation’s history as a haven for those seeking to improve their condition.