There is something like 10 million illegal immigrants in the United States today. Most of them are working at jobs with willing employers, or as day laborers, or are the children of such workers.
You can see the day laborers, if you live in a metropolitan area with any economic vibrancy, lined up at 7 a.m. on street corners waiting for the offer of a day's work. You can see them clustered in those storefront shops offering cheap phone calls to Mexico or El Salvador or the Philippines. Or, if you could go out with the Border Patrol and a pair of night-vision goggles, you could see them in the mountains and valleys and desert floors of Cochise County, Ariz., as they move across the border and head toward booming Phoenix or Las Vegas.
How has this come to be? Before the restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s, almost all immigrants came in boats from Europe and passed through entry stations like Ellis Island -- they could be easily kept track of and counted.
We passed restrictive laws after World War I that vastly increased the power of the state, and enforcement proved relatively easy. Now, our borders are porous because people can get in by airplane or on foot. Visa holders can overstay their visas. Whole industries -- farming on the West Coast, meatpacking in the Midwest, chicken processing in the South -- seem to depend on immigrant labor, and documents can easily be forged.
Critics charge that immigration drives down wages at the low end of the labor market, but the effect seems minimal -- anyway, when unemployment is low, it's not clear that millions of illegal workers could be easily replaced even if employers offered higher wages.
But there is a pretty widespread consensus, in a time when we are threatened by terrorism, that border security can and should be improved. The fence built in San Diego and increased border patrolling around El Paso, Texas, reduced the illegal inflow there, and it increased in the Arizona desert. With our high-tech capabilities, we surely should be able to do better than we are now. And there are surely better ways to keep track of visa holders.
There is less consensus on what should be done about illegals currently in the United States. In his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush called for a guest- worker program, allowing illegals to legalize their status. Many other Republicans, the loudest of them Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, have said that this amounts to amnesty and would reward those who broke the law.