Heather Mac Donald, a journalist and fellow at the Manhattan Institute, can count immigration policy among her many areas of expertise. A contributing editor to the think tank's quarterly magazine City Journal and frequent contributor to important places like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times, she also focuses on things like homeland security, policing and "racial" profiling, homelessness, education policy and business improvement districts. As details of the immigration reform bill were being fought over in the Senate, I talked to Mac Donald by telephone on Thursday from her home in New York City:
Q: What's good about the Senate immigration bill?
A: I think the idea of moving our immigration system to reward people who bring skills that this country needs and who will improve its economy and its level of education is a very positive step. I have read that the mechanisms of moving in that direction are rather arcane and not at all reliable -- and that it will take perhaps eight years before in fact the system is changed at all from its current family-based rationale -- but I think that is a very useful idea. I think trying to move toward a greater ability to check worker eligibility is also a good idea.
Q: Is there a worst part of this bill that you would point to?
A: The worst part is the overnight amnesty for the 12 million illegals who are here. They merely need to apply and show that they've been in the country before Jan. 1 and provide some effort at proving they are currently working and the government has 24 hours to decide whether they are not eligible by virtue of a criminal background check. I think that is one of the most automatic amnesties that has been proposed in the whole series of so-called reform bills. I think to send the message to the world that, as usual, we are not serious about our immigration laws, and that they don't mean anything -- that if you can get into the country you can expect an amnesty -- will make the idea that we have meaningful borders completely a joke.
Q: What is a sound-bite synopsis of your position on immigration?
A: I think immigration should be to benefit America. It's not a favor that we owe the rest of the world and we should craft immigration policies in ways that will improve our national competitiveness. That means bringing in people who have skills that will help the economy.
I'm also concerned with Hispanic immigrants. In the second and third generation, a significant portion of the children of recent Hispanic immigrants -- who are virtually all illegal but their children are legal -- are getting sucked up into underclass culture. You have the highest dropout rate in the country among Hispanics, the highest teen-pregnancy rate in the country among Hispanics and an out-of-wedlock birth rate that is 50 percent. These are all markers of future social pathology, so I think we are creating family breakdown and all of the problems that surely follow in the train of that.
Q: If you had to craft a smart, sensible immigration bill, what would it look like?
A: I think the point system is a good one. Currently, priority is given to legal immigrants who are family members of people who are already here, so they can bring in their extended families (chain migration). This bill would shift the emphasis -- after it takes eight years to churn through all the waiting list of the family chain migration -- to give points to people who have higher levels of education than the usual immigrants or have skills that are in demand here. This is a system that other countries have used.
Q: What else should a good immigration policy have in it?
A: It should have both the means and the will to enforce the laws that are on the books. Currently, it is illegal to hire an illegal alien. But the chance of any given employer or any given illegal alien actually being penalized for that law-breaking is close to zero -- even though the Bush administration has recently increased its enforcement to a certain extent. So I think we need a mechanism for ensuring that employers really are following the law. That will reduce the "jobs magnet" that does bring a lot of illegal aliens here.
Q: What about the "welfare magnet"? Does it bring as many people here as we think it does?
A: You definitely see "border babies." You see women crossing the border to deliver children here, both to get the medical services for free and also to confer automatic American citizenship on their children. The reason why a lot of people want to bring their parents here is not just family ties but also the availability of Medicaid for the parents. But even if people are coming for jobs, when you have a very low-skilled population whose children -- if they are born here -- are automatically eligible for welfare, you have high, high welfare use among the low-skilled immigrant population. It's because their kids are getting everything -- they're getting traditional welfare, food stamps; the parents qualify for Medicaid, which has gone way up among immigrants over the last decade. So whether or not they are coming for the welfare, they are certainly receiving it at very large rates.
Q: What makes you think that the federal government and the wonderful politicians in charge of it will ever come up with a solution to the immigration problem that will work?
A: Well, I would say it depends on how you define the problem and how you define what will work. But right now we still do have the notion of national sovereignty. We haven’t embraced the idea that this country does not have a right to determine who comes in and who doesn’t. Most Americans still believe in the concept of borders. We saw that skepticism about the ability of law enforcement to enforce the law with crime up through the 1990s, where it was assumed that the police can’t control crime -- until somebody like Mayor Giuliani said, “We’re actually going to enforce the law and we are going to have an effect on crime.” He destroyed the received wisdom among criminologists. Up till now there has literally been no will to enforce immigration laws. We’ve never tried. I’d like to see us try, and then if we decide it’s still impossible, well, maybe that’s the case. But right now I would say that based on the analogy with the policing, it is something that is possible.
Q: Is there no way to use more market incentives and fewer fences and border agents to create a system that will allow people to cross and re-cross the border more easily, and return more easily, the way Mick Jagger does when he comes to work here?
A: I'm not necessarily against guest-worker programs, although if we don't have the will to enforce the law against people who were here illegally from Day One, I'm not convinced we'll ever ask them to leave if they overstay their visa. The reason it’s a concern is what people are seeing in their communities and the fact that the bulk of low-income Hispanics who are coming here, their kids are getting sucked into gang cultures. So even if you have an easier revolving door, if they stay, a significant portion of that population is going to be contributing over time to additional welfare costs. Single mothers are poor. You have 50 percent of all Hispanic children now being raised by single mothers. This is a big, big problem. The biggest population growth in this country is coming from Hispanics, and the Hispanic out-of-wedlock birth rate is growing, unlike that for blacks.
So this is not a good recipe for social cohesion, for strong bourgeois values. That’s why even if you had some sort of market mechanism, we might want to rethink the mix of immigrants who are coming through. If everyone met the profile of Indians or Asians that are coming with high educational aspirations, with their children working like crazy to get into the Ivy Leagues, that is obviously a benefit. With Hispanics, it is a higher dropout rate than for blacks, which is saying a lot; about 50 percent of Hispanic kids graduate from high school.
Q: How many of the 12 million illegals are actually a problem -- whether because they are a drain on taxpayers because they are consuming welfare services or because they are criminals?
A: Well, The Wall Street Journal reported that DHS (Department of Homeland Security) estimates that possibly up to 20 percent of illegals wouldn’t qualify for amnesty because of criminal backgrounds. That is a huge, huge, huge number. I’m frankly surprised it’s that high because the real crime problem happens between second and third generations. With Mexicans it goes up eight times. Gang involvement is highest in the second generation. But welfare use is just very large -- 45 percent of households in 2005 headed by immigrants without a high school degree used at least one major welfare program. That includes all immigrants, but these days the immigrant flow is overwhelmingly Hispanic and overwhelmingly illegal and low-skilled. So there is a very high correlation between low-skilled immigrants and welfare use. In the future, if you have Hispanics having kids out of wedlock, that’s a recipe for poverty that leads to more welfare use. So they qualify for Medicaid -- all illegals qualify for Medicaid under most states. So that’s huge. Medicaid now is breaking state budgets.
Q: Do you think we'll still be trying to fix immigration five years from now?
A: (laughs) That's a great question. I'm really never in the business of making political predictions. I don't follow the politics that closely. But I would say we will still be trying to fix it if we move in this direction, because amnesty is going to guarantee more illegals. Unless we put a marker in the sand now, I think we will.