Bringing the criminals out of the shadows requires some fresh thinking of our priorities 

It would be hard to imagine an immigration system more favorable to terrorists than our own. It shelters them, it gives them cover, and it encourages contempt for our laws. Paradoxically, though, the problem is not that our borders are too open. It's that our borders are too closed. This may take some explaining, so please, stay with me.

Let's start with an undoubted fact. The United States is a rich country, so employment opportunities here are relatively lucrative, all up and down the pay scale. For a Mexican of almost any social class, crossing into the United States for a job is the equivalent of getting a gigantic pay raise. The same is usually true for people in the Arab world. In the war on global poverty, our ability to employ everyone from day laborers to doctors is an unmitigated good, and if that were all that was on our minds, we should be happy.

Economically, everyone wins.

Of course, we can't stop there. Estimates say that perhaps ten or twelve million people have come here without going through the proper legal channels. This tells us that something has gone very wrong, and it has.

Why don't they come here legally? The answer is very simple – for many people, doing it legally is for all practical purposes impossible. A Mexican with a high school education and a sister who is a U.S. citizen would need to wait about 131 years for a green card. A wait time that shatters the world lifespan record makes a cruel joke of "legal" immigration. Is it any wonder that immigrants disrespect our laws? Rather than enriching the world legally, we've created a way to make crime pay.

Not only is our immigration process unworkable on paper, it's unenforceable in practice. Closing the border is a geographic absurdity that would require more manpower than we have at our disposal. Worse, it wouldn't even effectively stop the problem, because many undocumented immigrants cross the border legally, then just overstay their visas. It's hardly an exaggeration to say that our immigration laws can only be so crazy on paper because everyone knows they can't be enforced in practice anyway.

Still, such laws have serious negative consequences. They create an atmosphere of contempt for the law. As an introduction to American values, they are an embarrassment. Worse, they also create cover for people who won't stop at illegal immigration but will to continue on to more violent crimes. With millions of people lacking legal documents, it's easy to lose the few high-value targets among them. The people we most want to catch aren't the ones who break a bunch of laws that we couldn't enforce anyway. The most important targets are the ones who break the most important laws – the members of violent gangs, terrorists, and other international criminals.

We want the worst people to stand out. We don't want them taking cover, as they do today, amid a bunch of undocumented but hard-working and low-profile immigrants. Deporting all of these people would be very difficult. Imprisoning them would be unconscionable – and we already have the highest incarceration rate in the world. So how do we find the big fish in the ocean of immigrants?

The answer I favor is to make it easy to live here legally, and then to make it routine to ask immigrants about their status.

We need, in other words, a guest worker program. Let's consider what consequences it might bring.

First, asking an immigrant for papers won't such a big deal when papers are easy to get. And the only immigrants who won't want to register will be the ones with something really serious to hide. These will be our criminals – and if we have to choose only a few people to apprehend, they should obviously be the ones.

Immigrants who only want to work are unlikely complain about getting documentation when they know it just takes a trip to the local courthouse. There's little question that these people would prefer to be here legally,. We can and should invite them to do so.

If we had a guest worker program, employers wouldn't balk so much at asking employees for papers. They would know it's usually a formality, and that it's helping law enforcement catch some very serious criminals. Employers do balk today, because today it usually means losing an employee while doing absolutely nothing to stop more serious crimes.

While asking for papers admittedly isn't the most elegant or perfectly libertarian solution, it's a whole lot better than what we have right now, and it might be the best we can do.

It's likely a system that natives and immigrants alike can get behind. But not the criminals.

About The Author

Jason Kuznicki

Jason Kuznicki is a research fellow at the Cato Institute. He received his Ph.D. in history from Johns Hopkins University in 2005.
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