Alan Reynolds

Rational discussion of the Senate immigration bill is being stifled and befuddled by a few misused words and phrases that generate irrational anger and very little understanding.

The simple dichotomy between legal and illegal immigrants, for example, ignores the 175 million foreigners who arrived in the United States in 2005 as legal nonimmigrants -- tourists, business travelers, students and temporary workers. There were 4.7 million people who came here to conduct business, without even counting the millions more Canadian and Mexican businessmen who do not generally have to fill out an arrival-departure record. Canadians who live near the border often shop in the United States because sales taxes are much lower here. There were 663,058 new foreign students who arrived in 2005, including a few spouses and children.

"Securing the borders" means dealing with all 175 million foreigners who arrive here each year-- not merely a half million additional illegal entrants. About half of all illegal residents arrived here legally, but remained here illegally. Even the most severe bureaucratic and militarized restrictions on crossing the U.S.-Mexican border could at best affect no more than half the flow of illegal immigration.

Legal immigration means permanent residents -- those who receive green cards. There were 1,122,373 new legal residents in 2005 and another 1,255,264 in 2006. About half as many, 604,280, became naturalized U.S. citizens in 2005. Clearly, very few of the 175 million people admitted to the United States become permanent residents, and fewer still are (or want to be) "on a path to citizenship." Discussions about criteria for getting a temporary work visa need not be confounded with who may or may not get a green card, much less with the few who may become citizens.

Acquiring legal resident status under current law has little to do with eligibility for work and almost everything to do with having relatives in the United States who are legal residents. The Immigration Act of 1990 set caps on U.S. legal immigration, aside from immediate family members of U.S. citizens (an exception that fostered Internet brides). The overall cap was almost entirely devoted to family members of legal residents, leaving only 140,000 slots for foreign employees who might hope to stay here. As a result, most foreigners working in the United States are on temporary visas. They are, to use another hot button phrase, "guest workers."


Alan Reynolds

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