One of the most interesting facts about the current debate on immigration is that the conservative case is one more example of the extent to which the current Republican Party has moved to the right of Ronald Reagan.
Critics of the notion of giving legal status to people who have entered America in violation of the immigration statutes, but have not in any other way violated our law, cite the example of the immigration bills of 1986 and 1990 as evidence that this would be a terrible mistake. I was a member of the House Judiciary Committee participating in the adoption of those two bipartisan pieces of legislation. The first was adopted by a Democratic House and a Republican Senate and signed by Reagan. His administration then proposed the follow-up, which was subsequently passed by a Democratic House and Senate and enthusiastically signed by George Bush. These were two of the rare occasions during Republican presidential rule when I was invited to join the president at a bill signing.
These laws provided legal status for people who had immigrated illegally, and also provided stronger penalties for employers who hired people going forward who did not have legal status. (That latter provision has not worked very well, in part because of opposition to the position that myself and others took – including a leading Republican, Bill McCullum who went on to be attorney general of Florida – that we should establish a national system whereby employers could check whether or not a potential hire had legal status.)
So the fact is that the legislative action of nearly 30 years ago did result in millions of people being given American citizenship outside of the normal administrative processes.
I have a question to pose to those who think that this was such a terrible thing that we should by no means repeat it, even if the obsession against any repetition has become a fundamental obstacle to rational immigration reform: What harm did it do?
I followed the consequences closely. There is simply no argument whatsoever that can be made that American society has suffered – economically, culturally, socially or in any other way from the fact that Reagan, myself and some others got together to let people stay here legally.
The opposite is the case. What we did in that situation was provide legal status for people who have on the whole become productive workers, and their work has been helpful in American economic progress.
People who are in this country without legal protections, even given that the overwhelming majority are entirely otherwise law-abiding, can have negative effects on employment conditions. People who are vulnerable to being expelled if they are reported to immigration officials are unable to take advantage of the worker protection laws that we have enacted: minimum wage, occupational safety and health protection, the right to join unions, workman’s compensation laws, etc.
The harmful effect that people who are here illegally can have on those employed legally is the incentive that unscrupulous employers have to hire the former rather than the latter because they can be more easily exploited. But for our economy to continue to grow, and for us to maintain a balance in a workforce in which there are enough people working age to produce enough to support themselves, immigration is essential. The birth rate of those who are already here would not provide the ability to meet that goal.
That is why the issue of immigration is one of an increasing number in which the business community has been unhappy about some aspects of its tight alliance with a Republican Party that has been increasingly dominated by its most conservative elements.
Immigrant families are not simply people who take jobs here. They are also people who consume, and an increase in the working-age population, which is what immigrants provide, by and large, adds to the productivity to the nation.
The fear of immigrants is particularly disheartening when it focuses on children. The increase in unaccompanied minors to our border is a social problem for them and can be a problem for those in the border towns. But the number of these children is minuscule compared with the population of the United States.
I have been particularly struck by the hypocrisy of some on the right who have argued that we should not allow any significant number of these vulnerable children to enter our country because we still have poor children of our own to provide for, since these are often the people who have refused to extend Medicaid in states where they are in control; who have cut food stamps for poor children; and have generally blocked efforts to provide assistance to these young Americans. I am deeply skeptical that the hysterical fear that we will be swamped by hordes of poor Central American children is really based on conservatives’ compassion for their younger fellow citizens.
It is also fashionable in many conservative circles to talk about how America is deteriorating and to lament our diminished status in the world. But our immigration “problem” is one more example showing that America continues to be one of the most desirable places in the world to live. The issue is that too many people want to come join us because of the quality of life that we can provide. In fact, this is an additional indication of the strength of our economy: For all of the predictions that America faces economic doom, there has been no diminution in the worldwide recognition that the best place to put money for safe keeping is in United States Treasury securities.
It is important for us to deal rationally with this flood of children, as well as with the presence of so many people in our country who do not have legal status. Of course we cannot simply accommodate everybody who would like to come here, as flattering as that great desire is to our society.
But the notions that we are somehow being damaged by the presence of people who benefited from Reagan’s decision to give them legal status nearly 30 years ago, or that Central American children in the tens or even hundreds of thousands somehow threaten the stability, security or economic capacity of our nation of over 300 million, are totally without justification. And I have seen few spectacles as appalling as those cases where people in various American cities have banded together to object vigorously – and sometimes physically – to the presence of hundreds of poor children being housed by the federal government within their boundaries, recalling the days of the racist mobs confronting black children in the South in the 1960s.
Immigrants are a self-selected section of the most energetic and entrepreneurial people in any society. People who are lazy and unwilling try to better themselves stay home. It is in our interest and theirs to try to improve the situation in many of these countries so that there is less incentive for the economically adventurous to leave. I agree with those Central American presidents who think that American drug problem destabilizes their countries. Our fruitless prohibition of various substances that large numbers of Americans want to buy is a significant cause for the organized violence in those societies.
But even if we rationalize our drug policies, we will continue to have the “problem” of many people in the hemisphere wanting to come here. We do need to put orderly processes in place to deal with this, but treating this tribute to the attractiveness of American society, and the longer-term economic gain we get from them coming here, as some terrible threat to us gets it exactly wrong.
Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.
– Special to the Telegram