Congress' theater of the absurd

Posted: Jul 12, 2006 12:01 AM

For the past week, members of Congress have been engaged in theater of the absurd. Both the Senate and the House have passed immigration bills, but instead of getting down to business and negotiating their way to a compromise, committees of both the House and Senate have decided to hold "field hearings" around the country.

These hearings have been nothing more than an opportunity to showcase the respective positions of the two houses -- with the Senate favoring comprehensive reform that includes a guest worker program and a path to legalization for the 11.5 million illegal aliens living in the U.S., as well as tougher enforcement at the border; and the House supporting an "enforcement only" approach to make it more difficult for illegal aliens to get here or find jobs if they do. At the end of this charade, the two sides are no closer to passing a bill than they were before they wasted the taxpayers' money on this publicity stunt.

Meanwhile, the facts on the ground haven't changed. Our economy is percolating along nicely, thanks, in part, to the contribution of immigrants (legal and illegal), who make up almost 15 percent of our labor force, including 40 percent of new workers who have entered the labor market between 2002 and 2005.

If we follow the wishes of House Republicans, we will drastically cut back the supply of labor for the immediate future and we can expect a tightening labor market and higher prices for much of what we buy, which will lead to more inflation. But we'll reduce the number of people who come into the country illegally -- though we won't entirely eliminate illegal immigration. Some 40 percent of illegal aliens currently living here entered the country legally and overstayed the terms of their visas. Unless we shut our borders to tourists, students and other temporary visitors, or create some fool-proof method of tracking them while they are here, we won't completely eliminate illegal immigration even if we entirely seal our borders.

If we accept the Senate approach, we can expect higher levels of legal immigration for the foreseeable future -- though not nearly as high as critics have suggested. Robert Rector's estimates of 200 million new immigrants in the next 20 years are laughable, for example. (He has since revised his numbers downwards a couple of times.) There are only 107 million people living in Mexico, the country that sends more immigrants here than any other and the one that seems to provoke the most concern from anti-immigration activists. And despite the fantasies of Hispanophobes, not every Mexican man, woman and child is going to come to the U.S. even if we were to create an entirely open border between our two countries.

But, while the Senate approach will mean about 30 million immigrants admitted over the next 20 years, according to most reasonable estimates, illegal immigration will drop dramatically, just as it did in the 1950s after the U.S. adopted the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexicans to come as temporary agricultural workers. At the time the Bracero Program was adopted, about a half million illegal aliens were sneaking across the border each year. Once Mexican workers were given a legal way to come to the United States to work temporarily, illegal immigration dropped by 95 percent.

The Senate approach is not without problems, however. There are individual items in the legislation that are ill-conceived and should be dropped -- for example, a provision calling on employers to pay "prevailing wages" to guest workers. And neither the House nor Senate has come up with a practical way to help local communities deal with the increased burden of providing education or health care to immigrants and their children. Although immigrants, including illegal aliens, pay more in taxes than they use in services overall, even after accounting for the education of their children, the surplus taxes go to the federal government, while heavily impacted communities bear the burden of paying for the actual services they receive.

Congress could fix this, but has shown little interest in doing so. In the past, Congress has allocated extra federal aid to school districts with large military installations or other federal facilities that don't pay property taxes to support schools. A similar approach might work for communities with large immigrant populations -- that is if certain members of Congress weren't more interested in using immigration to inflame voters than to solve problems.

Meanwhile, those expecting real immigration reform anytime soon will be left, like Estragon and Vladimir, waiting for Godot.

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