March 8, 2006
Build a Fence -- And Amnesty
WASHINGTON -- It's time to build a real fence or a wall along
every foot of the 1,989 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border. There
can be only two arguments against this approach to keeping out
illegal aliens: (1) it won't work -- possible, but we won't know
unless we try; or (2) we don't want it to work -- then, we should
say so and open our borders to anyone but criminals and terrorists.
Either way, we need more candor in our immigration debates. Now
is the time, because Congress is considering its first major immigration
legislation in years.
the Border Patrol stopped 1.19 million people trying to enter
the United States illegally; 98.5 percent of them were caught
along the Southern border. Of those who got through and stayed
(crude estimate: about 500,000 annually), about two-thirds lack
a high school education. Even a country as accepting of newcomers
as the United States cannot effortlessly absorb infinite numbers
of poor and unskilled workers. Legal immigration already totals
750,000 to 1 million annually, many of them also unskilled.
I do not
like advocating a fence. It looks and feels bad. It's easily stigmatized
as racist. It would antagonize Mexico. The imagery is appalling,
but it beats the alternative: a growing underclass and social
tensions. Moreover, a genuine fence would probably work. The construction
of about 10 miles of steel and concrete barriers up to 15 feet
high in San Diego has reduced illegal crossings in that sector
by about 95 percent since 1992, reports Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.,
a supporter of a U.S.-Mexico fence. Sure, there will be tunnels
and ladders. But getting in will be harder. Policing will be easier.
need to stiffen employer fines for hiring illegal aliens. Businesses
should have to check prospective workers against computer databases
with Social Security numbers, passports or immigration documents.
Now, employers only have to inspect physical documents, which
are easily forged. Even these lax rules are widely flouted and
poorly policed. There are an estimated 10 million to 12 million
illegal aliens in the United States.
and genuine border control ought to curb illegal immigration.
Good. Naturally, there's another point of view. It is that the
United States needs more unskilled workers to fill jobs native-born
Americans won't take. One solution is to admit more unskilled
workers legally. By this view, Hispanics are assimilating economically
and culturally as fast as some groups in the past.
But common sense and available evidence suggest skepticism. If
there are ``shortages'' of unskilled American workers, the obvious
remedy is to raise their wages. A Texas roofing contractor testified
to Congress that he couldn't get enough roofers at $9 an hour.
OK, increase it to $10 or $12. Higher wages will bring forth more
workers. Perish the thought. Business groups, led by the U.S.
Chamber of Commerce, clamor for more ``guest workers.'' That's
a euphemism for cheap labor. These business groups seem unperturbed
by extravagant increases in CEO pay. But they're horrified by
anything that might raise the wages of maids, waitresses, laborers
As for assimilation,
it's true that millions of Hispanic families are moving into --
and reshaping -- the American mainstream. But average trends look
less encouraging. Since 1990, about 90 percent of the increase
in people living below the government's poverty lines are Hispanic.
That has to be mainly immigrants and their American-born children.
The median net worth of Hispanic households is about 9 percent
of that of non-Hispanic whites (net worth is what people own minus
what they owe), reports the Pew Hispanic Center.
takes time. The big difference between today's Hispanic inflows
and past immigration waves is that those stopped. History or restrictive
laws intervened. There was time for newcomers to adapt. Left alone,
there's no obvious reason why the present Hispanic immigration
should even pause. Today's unskilled arrivals make it harder for
yesterday's to get ahead. The two compete.
a paradox. To make immigration succeed, we need to curb some immigration.
That's why it's vital to control our border. It also explains
why it's important not to ``solve'' that problem merely by legalizing
these huge inflows.
If we control
new inflows, we should legalize the illegal immigrants already
here. Many have American-born children, who are U.S. citizens.
It is not desirable or ethical to try to force most illegal immigrants
to leave. Yes, they broke the law; but we were complicit by making
the law so easy to break. Their present shadowy status deprives
them of rights and exposes them to exploitation. We should want
the ``melting pot'' to work -- and fear that it might come to
2006, Washington Post Writers Group
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