Last night’s free-wheeling, barely moderated debate was a joy to watch. We learned that Michele Bachmann thinks Libya is not in Africa. We learned that Herman Cain might have another set of numbers besides 9-9-9: 171-for-1…the number of Gitmo detainees that he might be willing to swap for a single U.S. soldier held abroad by violent Islamists.
And we learned, yet again, that Mitt Romney is the most likely candidate to clean the President’s clock in next autumn’s debates. Lost in all the excitement, it was easy to miss a critical distinction between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry on one hand, and Herman Cain on another. The debate made clear that Mitt Romney and Rick Perry have a better grasp of the problems with illegal immigration.
Perry and Romney both touted employer sanctions. Meanwhile, Herman Cain has proposed a (possibly electric) fence, enforcing the laws on the books, promoting legal immigration and abdicating the Federal government’s constitutional responsibility to set immigration policy to the states. That’s not enough.
Before 1986 there was no law on the books which made illegal to hire an illegal alien, and unsurprisingly, many employers took advantage of this tacit “go ahead and hire” policy. After the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli-Reagan amnesty, we had the law on the books, but the fines were mere pittances and largely went unenforced.
Ten years later, Congress passed a new overhaul of the immigration laws. The new law emerged out of a virulent debate where Republicans had taken a hard line on denying public benefits for illegal aliens and been very successful. (See: Wilson, Pete; political resurrection of). As a result, in the run up to the 1996 election, Senator Bob Dole suggested that unauthorized alien children should be denied any and all public education. In this decidedly pre-compassionate conservatism environment, Congress imposed stiff penalties on illegals caught inside the United States and built a triple-fence on part of the border near San Diego. (Clinton, triangulating and appealing to the polls as ever, signed the law in September 1996, won California by 13 points, and came within 5 points in Texas.)
Unfortunately, the new law but did not focus on the employers who provide jobs for low wages, underbid legal labor, and create a vast market for illegal labor. In fact, by imposing strong penalties on the illegal workers themselves (aliens caught illegally in the United States were barred from re-entry for three or ten years, depending on how long they had been in the country without authorization), the 1996 law created some perverse incentives. As Princeton University Professor Douglas Massey has noted, the law “created an incentive for people who are here unlawfully to remain here unlawfully rather than to be able to go home and apply for immigrant visas.” And the border fence diverted foot traffic through an even more inhospitable path across the border, ultimately causing the deaths of thousands of migrants.
Meanwhile, without serious employer sanctions, the unauthorized population skyrocketed in the 2000s, peaking at 12 million in 2007.
Whether you favor earned legalization or attrition-through-enforcement as a solution to our illegal immigration crisis (I support the former, which is less likely to further destabilize the failing state of Mexico, where most illegal immigrants come from, by forcing hordes of newly minted unemployed and presumably dissatisfied citizens home), the country must slap serious sanctions on employers who violate the law.
The federal government must impose a serious penalty, essentially a big tax, on hiring unauthorized aliens (again, preferably concurrently with passage of some form of earned legalization). David Frum has proposed a fine big enough to deter businesses from acting out: $25,000 per illegal alien hired per day worked. Congress should pass just such a penalty, and give ICE the funds to enforce it. After that, a couple of eight-figure fine busts will do more to deter illegal immigration than any “danged fence” ever will.
That’s not to say that the problem will be solved overnight (we probably need a national ID card, for one thing), but it’s good enough for now. Hopefully, Governors Perry and Romney will convince Mr. Cain that business needs to pay their fair share for illegal immigration.