Why Immigration Reform Matters

By Paul Starr
The American Prospect, July-August 2007

When immigration legislation stalled and possibly died on the Senate floor on June 7, some progressives were just as pleased as Lou Dobbs. But passing even an imperfect compromise of the kind the Senate had been debating would be far better than doing nothing.

Among all the conflicting concerns about the issue, there is one that ought to drive change: The presence of 12 million people without legal or political rights in our society is fundamentally inconsistent with the principles on which a liberal democracy rests.

While a small number of illegal residents or temporary workers may raise ethical questions, a large population with no rights or security undermines the rule of law, the rights of citizens, and the working of democracy. The law cannot offer equal protection to all when there are millions of people for whom it offers no protection whatsoever.

For example, if employers can hire illegal immigrants who fear the authorities and therefore cannot call on them to enforce minimum-wage and other labor laws, those laws lose much of their efficacy in protecting citizens as well. If millions of low-wage earners are barred from voting because they are not citizens, the political influence of the poor is diminished and the electorate is skewed upward.

The two principal elements in immigration reform -- stronger enforcement of border security and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States -- could help to alleviate these problems.

Both elements, not just the extension of opportunities for naturalization, are crucial. Extending citizenship without also controlling illegal entry into the United States would only reproduce in the future the unacceptable situation that we have today.

Conservatives have a legitimate point when they say that offering citizenship to people who have come here illegally creates an incentive for others to violate the law. The only way to address that concern is to adopt serious measures for enforcement, including, for example, biometric identity cards and serious penalties for employers who hire illegal workers. These are crucial for making a new law successful where the 1986 immigration reform failed.

But tightening the borders can have perverse and counterproductive side effects if the law doesn't also address the demand for seasonal workers, particularly in agriculture. The border-security measures taken in recent years have already discouraged illegal immigrants in seasonal jobs from returning to Mexico, for fear they would never be able to come back. As a result, many illegal immigrants stay here during periods when they have no jobs, posing the kind of burden to society that anti-immigrant groups mistakenly attribute to all immigrants.

That is why we need a modestly proportioned temporary-worker program. Liberals who oppose such a measure ought to pay attention to the small size of the program (up to 200,000 workers annually) that would be authorized by the legislation under debate. There is no chance that sufficient numbers of native-born workers are going to fill the demand for seasonal employment, and there is no likelihood that a program on this scale would significantly reduce wage levels, not least of all because the law requires that temporary workers be paid prevailing wages in the industry. The temporary-worker program is a small concession to economic realities, justified by the larger benefit that a compromise on immigration could bring.

The larger benefit is that, taken together, the various elements in the proposed legislation would move us closer to a democracy that affords full citizenship to all of those who live permanently within its borders and under its laws.

To be sure, there are legitimate objections to the symbolism of building a fence along the Mexican border, and there are legitimate questions about the diminished importance of family ties in the new points system for determining who can enter America as a legal immigrant. But neither of these concerns ought to be allowed to kill the legislation.

There will never be an easy time to pass immigration reform. This year, however, the president has a political interest in using immigration reform to restore credibility to his administration. And the Democrats also have a political interest -- indeed, a much more important one -- in passing an immigration bill. To get a Republican president and key Republicans in Congress to buy into a compromise is far better than it would be for Democrats, if they win in 2008, to try to pass reform on their own and thereby risk an ugly and powerful backlash under the Republicans in 2010.

If there is a deal to be had on immigration in this Congress, liberals and progressives should be part of it.

Copyright © 2007 by The American Prospect, Inc.
Preferred Citation: Paul Starr, "Why Immigration Reform?" The American Prospect, July-August 2007. This article may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed without prior written permission from the author. Direct questions about permissions to permissions@prospect.org.