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Spitting Into the Wind on Immigration

By Holman Jenkins

Fuss in Washington notwithstanding, there's an easy way to reduce illegal immigration. It doesn't involve building fences or spending hundreds of billions to create an intrusive bureaucracy to hunt down illegals one by one and deport them. Just introduce a fraud-proof national ID card with biometric information; make it illegal, with real penalties, for employers to hire anyone, citizen or immigrant, who doesn't have one.

Presto. Businesses would no longer be able to profess the impossibility of judging who's legal and who isn't. Most of the jobs illegal immigrants do would disappear, and many if not most of the immigrants would leave for the same reason they came--better opportunities elsewhere.

Before we go down this road, however, would we really like the consequences?

With 12 million illegals in the country, whole sectors of our economy exist only because of immigrant labor. Farms would shut down along with jobs for suppliers of seeds, packaging and ancillary services. Jobs for waiters, maître d's and chefs would vanish, not just those of immigrant busboys, kitchen hands and cleaners. Some 1.2 million illegals are believed to work in construction. If the cost of home building goes up, demand goes down: Less wood is sold, fewer nails, fewer power tools, fewer pickup trucks. Contractors would make less profit; ergo, Harley-Davidson would sell fewer Road Kings with all the chrome and finery.

Armchair wonks say, "Enforce the law and damn the consequences." Every time the government does, however, a few of those couch warriors suddenly become vocal activists on the other side. It's their employer, their brother-in-law, their neighbor who finds himself facing criminal charges. It's their house that doesn't get finished. Don't be surprised if some of the latest politically inspired crackdowns end the same way. Blowback in the Cincinnati area is already growing against the arrest last month of four foremen for Fischer Homes, a well-liked local home builder.

In search of a respectable argument, liberal enthusiasts for a border clampdown have lately adopted the obnoxious and condescending reification of "unskilled labor" popularized by some economists. It may be true in some sense that illegals hold down the wages of low-wage workers, but it tells you nothing useful. It tells you only that the supply of immigrant workers has an impact on the wages of mostly immigrant workers for jobs that mostly would not exist if immigrant workers weren't available to fill them.

The very category "unskilled labor" is misleading. Any American worker, however backward, has one important skill advantage over most illegal immigrants: English. And all workers have a skill that leads to more skills: They can learn.

In turn, a decently functioning job market rewards people for acquiring skills, not for remaining unskilled--perverse is the idea of wanting to reduce labor competition for unskilled jobs in order to make unskilled jobs more desirable. OK, let's ban unskilled immigrants altogether. Let's welcome all the doctors and engineers who want to come but reserve the no-skill jobs for Americans. Let's make it so attractive for Americans not to acquire skills that we can close our schools. Think of the money we'd save.

If this is crazy, it's only so because of the crazy premise. Immigrant workers are a resource--no economy is better off for taking resources away.

Mexicans--let's admit this is largely about the Mexican wave--have crossed the border for jobs ever since there was a border. And amnesty was once routine because the statute of limitations on illegal entry ran out in five years. If the hypocrisy of our current system bothers you--and it should, because it allows workers to come and toil for us without granting them legal status--it's no denigration of the idea of law and lawfulness to admit to ourselves we have a bad law on our hands.

What's a better approach? Even guest worker solutions are artful fudgery--a guest worker won't go home any more reliably than an illegal will. So how about just open the door to anyone willing to put down a refundable entry deposit (say, $2,000) in return for a biometric work card? At a stroke, this would take the profit out of a vast underground industry. Chinese "snakeheads" cadge upwards of $40,000 per illegal immigrant. Latin "coyotes" get $2,000 or more. Not to mention the sizeable business done by document forgers and traffickers in stolen Social Security numbers.

This deposit could be charged off against future income tax liability (note, not payroll taxes), an incentive for immigrants to stay legal and move up into the bracket-worthy classes. It could be refunded when they leave the country--an incentive to return home if jobs become scarce in the U.S.

Polls say Americans want immigration cut down and they don't want amnesty for illegals, yet the Senate just passed an immigration reform that would increase immigration and proffer amnesty. The system works!--at least it works better than it did when Congress jumped off a cliff with the Volstead Act, knowing that though Americans liked the idea of liquor prohibition, they'd end up hating the consequences.

This doesn't please the border warriors, but they're spitting into the wind. In his table talk, a certain German dictator observed that religions have far more stability than states, which tend to come and go, swept away by the tides of history. The U.S., a young nation but already one of the world's longest-lived political states, has a chance to beat the odds thanks to our freedom from any of the usual fatal exclusivisms. But it will have to accept that it exists on a continent whose fastest-growing cultural force is Spanish speakers.

Mr. Jenkins is a member of The Wall Street Journal's editorial board and editor of Political Diary, OpinionJournal's premium email newsletter. His column appears in the Journal on Wednesdays.

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