Fixing the Borders (Without a Wall)

The recent Arizona controversy is one of many that has added fuel to the debate over open immigration. Michele Wucker, Executive Director of the World Policy Institute, assesses the situation. Reprinted from the World Policy Journal’s Winter 2006/7 edition.

by Michele Wucker

Last year witnessed mass demonstrations in favor of legalizing unauthorized immigrants juxtaposed with ongoing border patrols by Minuteman Project volunteers and strident punditry decrying our “broken borders.” Disparate as they were, this combination of voices sent a clear and unified message: “Something must be done.”

After a year of debate and a set of competing bills in the House of Representatives and the Senate, both the pro-immigration and restrictionist camps were disappointed with the utter failure of Congress to do virtually anything except approve a border fence, which most likely will never be built in its entirety, if at all. Congress left unanswered how to deal with the estimated 12 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States and how to reduce the future flow of illegal immigration.

With strong momentum for change, a mandate for bipartisan cooperation, and a brief window of opportunity before the 2008 presidential elections, the time is now to address these questions. To create an orderly, sustainable flow of immigration, Congress would do well to embrace issues that received little attention over the past year, yet will be crucial to the success of any reform project: how to decide whom to let in, how to fix a deeply flawed immigration bureaucracy, and how coordination with sending countries might help to ease migration pressure.

What Congress decides on immigration policy will have a wide-ranging impact on the health of communities, on tax revenue, on the businesses and individual Americans who employ foreign-born workers, on competitiveness in high-skilled industries, on the ability of immigrants’ children and future generations to succeed in America, and on America’s identity as a nation of immigrants. The immigration policies that America pursues resonate around the world. As a superpower whose identity is rooted in the notion of itself as an immigrant nation, the United States stands as an example—both good and bad—to countries that only recently have begun to wrestle with the question of how to integrate large foreign born populations. Indeed, the talk of building a border fence has sparked plans for new barriers in places as diverse as the Caribbean, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Should the United States choose a mainly restrictionist path, it is highly likely that many other nations would follow suit and crack down on their immigrant populations, intensifying ethnic conflict.

Changes in U.S. immigration policy will have not only a symbolic effect around the globe, but also a real economic impact. Nations like the Philippines and Mexico, which depend on remittances sent home by migrant workers, would be hard hit if the gates close. In countries without the universities or industries where skilled immigrants and talented students can pursue their scientific or professional interests, human capital would be wasted—hurting not just the home country but the rest of the world.

 This interconnectedness also means that the United States cannot stop at its own borders when conceiving a new immigration policy; slowing the flow of illegal immigration means addressing the root causes ofthe desperation that drives people into theshadows.

The “Push” Factor

Much is made of the “push” and “pull” factors driving migration: the reasons people leave their homelands and those that draw them to host countries. A sustainable immigration policy must address both.

 It is essential to address the migration problem at its source: the desperation that impels people to believe that the only way to feed their families is to leave them behind. Joint talks with Mexico—as well as other countries that send large numbers of migrants—could create partnerships intended to address the causes of illegal migration at their root. Recently, in a televised debate, I proposed diverting money intended for the border fence to potentially more productive purposes, such as development aid to create jobs in Mexico. Jim Gilchrist of the Minuteman Project—the private citizens’ group that monitors border crossings—responded in agreement. “We can help Mexico build a Mexican Dream, just like we in the U.S. have an American Dream,” he said, showing that such a plan is far from politically impossible, even among groups pushing to maximize enforcement. Yet, even if crossborder plans to change “push” factors are developed immediately, it will take some time for results to show. Policies to diminish the “pull” can have an impact much sooner.

Changing the “Pull”

Thus far, the debate on how to reduce the “pull” for illegal immigrants—and perhaps even reverse it by encouraging immigrant to return—has focused on enforcement measures and policies to deny immigrants access to driver’s licenses, bank accounts, housing, and other necessities of daily life. Yet right now, the push factor for many unauthorized immigrants is so strong that people will continue to migrate illegally no matter how harsh the conditions may be in the host country. This has combined with a powerful pull factor—the U.S. economy.

It is essential to address the migration problem at its source: the desperation that impels people to believe that the only way to feed their families is to leave them behind.

Here is where the problem starts. There are only enough legal visas to accommodate about two-thirds of the immigrants who come to the United States each year seeking work. Shortage of visas has not slowed immigration; it has merely prompted people to find ways to come illegally, whether with the help of a smuggler or by overstaying a legitimate visa. The resulting flood of illegal immigration has overwhelmed the government’s ability to enforce the existing law.

In the past decade, a fivefold increase in the enforcement budget and a threefold staff increase have failed to slow illegal immigration. This is largely because the number of visas available is so far out of touch with reality that migrant-dependent businesses face the choice of breaking the law—with the pain of any consequences falling hardest on the unauthorized workers—or following the law and not being able to survive. Many employers fail even to check if a worker’s identification is credible. This is part of a pervasive “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality that surrounds the hiring of foreign-born workers. A big loophole holds employers legally responsible only if they “knowingly” hire undocumented immigrants. And, for employers who try to follow the law, sophisticated forgeries that proliferate in a billion dollar market in faked documents make it difficult to tell legitimate papers from bogus ones.

 Verifying Employees

Employers must ask for identification showing that an employee is authorized to work in the United States and provide the corresponding Social Security number when payroll deductions are taken. If the information provided is not valid (often because the name does not match the number), the Social Security Administration then sends the employer a letter of notification, a process that takes weeks. Several thousand businesses participate in the government’s Basic Pilot program, which supposedly allows them to immediately verify a worker’s eligibility.

But that technology often fails to establish whether a worker has legal papers or not. The system produces a high number of false negatives, identifying a worker as unauthorized when he or she is, in fact, legal.1 False positives also occur frequently. In June 2006, a Swift & Company official testified before the House Small Business Committee that the Basic Pilot program—in which it had participated since 1997—could not accurately establish whether or not a Social Security number was being used elsewhere. Six months later, despite Swift’s history of cooperation, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement police raided its meat packing plants in several states and arrested more than 1,000 unauthorized immigrants.2Ironically, in 2002, the government had attempted to fine Swift $2.5 million for too aggressively trying to verify workers’ status; the case was settled for $200,000 with no admission of guilt.

The conundrum facing companies that have no reliable way of following the law illustrates the importance of creating a reliable system for verifying worker identities. It would not come cheap; the Social Security Administration estimates that simply creating a worker eligibility card would cost between $3.9 and $9.2 billions.3Then there are the ongoing annual costs (estimated in the low tens of millions) of creating and maintaining an accurate database to promptly correct false positives or negatives. But, compared to a border fence—which the Congressional Research Service has estimated would cost nearly $50 billion to cover perhaps one-third of the U.S.-Mexico border—such a database would be far more cost effective. By making it much harder to find work without authorization, this single measure could do more than any fence to slow the flow of illegal immigration. But it will only work if employers can be reasonably sure that there will be enough work visas available to ensure a stable labor supply.

Who Comes In

Although the demand for labor and jobs is what clearly drives migration, the United States fails to take that reality adequately into account when it decides whom to let in. In 2005, 58 percent of permanent resident visas, or green cards, were awarded to family members of U.S. citizens (many of whom are naturalized), while only 22 percent were awarded based on jobs. Our immigration policy would be far more effective if it corresponded with the market dynamics that drive people across borders. Right now, there are nearly as many visas allotted to adult extended-family relatives as there are to would-be immigrants with valuable job skills.

This requires overhauling the family preferences system that has long been the formula for deciding who may come here and eventually apply for citizenship. The goal of uniting families is worthy, but in practice, the innocuously named family preferences system results in dividing the nuclear families of legal permanent residents, and leaving adult siblings in limbo for decades. It also has exponentially increased immigration, partly because it raises potential migrants’ expectations that they will be able to get visas once a family member has found a toehold in America. When one family member arrives and is naturalized, he or she can petition for admission of an adult sibling or child—who, in turn, often brings children and a spouse, who then sponsors his or her own parents and siblings, and so on.

Legal permanent residents can bring spouses and children under this provision—but (unlike spouses and children of naturalized citizens) subject to a per-country visa cap, which often breaks up nuclear families because visas run out, particularly for high emigration countries like Mexico, India, and China. Once the number of visas allocated to a particular country has exceeded 7 percent of the total visas available for that year, no new applications are processed until new visas become available, typically when the quota is opened the following year. If, for example, you were an adult sibling from the Philippines and wanted a green card, as of December 2006 the government would not process your application unless you had filed it before June 1, 1984—a wait of nearly 22 years.

Streamlining immigration regulations may not be a short-term project, but it is a worthy one, especially if immigration agencies were allowed enough leeway to do their jobs.

Despite interminable delays, the family preferences system has created expectations that adult family members will be able to follow their siblings and parents. Over time, the process uproots and transplants entire extended families, with significant consequences for the sending country. Most important, family preferences tends to accelerate the exodus of a nascent middle class. Migration scholars have long noted that as incomes rise above abject poverty, migration increases because people can afford transportation and, if needed, smugglers’ fees—and does not decrease again until sending-country incomes have risen to the point where it does not make sense to leave. If a country’s population leaves as soon as incomes are high enough to permit them to do so, it risks the loss of a healthy middle class that is essential to building consumption, production, and investment.

By eliminating preferences for adult siblings and adult children for naturalized citizens and permanent residents, the United States could free up 138,066 visas. Moving these to job-based visa categories based on immigrants’ skills (which currently totals only 140,000 visas), would nearly double employment-based green cards. Adult siblings and children could still come under job-based visas. But the increase in the foreign-born population—and the exodus from migrant-sending countries—would be closer to linear, instead of exponential. That would permit further increasing the number of employment-based visas and exempting green card holders’ nuclear family members from quotas.

In particular, the number of visas available for high-skilled workers should be raised. The United States depends on these workers—who make up half of the nation’s research and development employees, as well as significant percentages of doctors, nurses, and science and engineering professionals—even more heavily than it does on low-skilled workers. Unlike low-wage workers, high-skilled professionals are unlikely to be hired for (or accept) jobs under the table, and current bottlenecks in visa processing often mean that they take their skills elsewhere.

The tradition of family preferences as the basis for U.S. policy is deeply rooted, so any cutback is bound to be controversial. Opposition could be offset by speeding up approvals of adult siblings and offspring of naturalized citizens, as well as the spouses and minor children of permanent residents, who are backlogged because of current policy.

Fix the System

The least contentious action Congress can take is to authorize an effective overhaul of immigration processing and information systems. Everyone—including the hardworking men and women in government immigration agencies—agrees that the system malfunctions. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is notorious for losing visa applications and for its processing errors. The government “help line” for visa applicants—staffed by privately contracted telephone operators who must familiarize themselves with 1,800 pages of tortuous and often out-of-date regulations—is almost comically unreliable.

American management theories are a hot commodity around the world, so why is our immigration bureaucracy reminiscent of the old East Bloc? The system’s dismal performance owes much to neglect and micromanagement. Because the agency’s $2 billion budget is funded entirely by user fees, it is perpetually plagued by shortfalls that have prevented an overhaul of its computer network and a staff reorganization.4  Congress should allocate funds essential for a technological upgrade of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (an estimated $400 million to $1.4 billion). While Congress slowly reaches a consensus on broader reaching immigration reform, it should enact stricter accountability and performance standards, a step that can be taken immediately.

Congress has not only starved the bureaucracy of resources but has imposed laws that needlessly burden the system. It has legislated conflicting mandates for agencies whose work overlaps, and it has micromanaged immigration down to mandating specific formats for forms used by immigration agencies. Streamlining immigration regulations may not be a short-term project, but it is a worthy one, especially if immigration agencies were allowed enough leeway to do their jobs.

Congress should immediately pass a comprehensive immigration reform that allows unauthorized immigrants to gain legal status and apply for earned citizenship. It can dramatically increase the number of employment-based visas while cutting family preference visas for adult siblings and adult children. To end the long-standing wink-wink-nudge-nudge approach to workplace enforcement (whereby unscrupulous employers get away with lawbreaking and businesses that comply have no realistic way to do so), it should authorize and fund the creation of a database—with a realistic deadline for implementation—that would allow employers to verify worker eligibility. And it should allocate funds to upgrade the immigration bureaucracy to standards worthy of America’s management prowess and of the vital importance of immigrants to the economy.


1. Marc R. Rosenblum, “Immigration Enforcement at the Worksite: Making it Work,” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, November 2005. See also Tamar Jacoby, “An Idea Whose Time Has Finally Come? The Case for Employment Verification,” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, November 2005.

2. Sue Kirchhoff, “Raids at Swift Raise Questions about Employers’ Ability to Check Status.” USA Today, December 13, 2006.

3. Kevin Jernegan, “Eligible to Work? Experiments in Verifying Work Authorization,” Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, November 2005.

4. Spencer S. Hsu, “Immigrant Processors Fall Behind,” Washington Post, January 4, 2007.

Michele Wucker is the Executive Director of the World Policy Institute and research fellow at the Immigration Policy Center. She is the author of Lockout: Why America Keeps Getting Immigration Wrong When Our Prosperity Depends on Getting it Right (Public Affairs, 2006).

Image via Flickr, user Mr.Wright