Jeb Bush

On July 8, 2009, the Council on Foreign Relations Independent Task Force on U.S. Immigration Policy, chaired by Jeb Bush and Mack McLarty, released a report which attempts to give a solution to America’s immigration problem. The report starts off well, emphasizing that immigration has been positive for America and citing the need for more legal immigration avenues and a market based temporary worker program. But then it dovetails, recommending legalization of those illegal immigrants living in the United States.

Legalization is a fancy term for an amnesty. We gave amnesty in 1986—and it did nothing to solve the problem. More and more folks saw an incentive to come here illegally, and they did, in droves. The number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. was around 11 million in 2008. While the economy has certainly decreased the numbers here illegally, the fact is that millions remain, and the numbers will increase when the economic gets better (even the CFR report confirms this is true).

For its part, the report addresses 1986 head-on. It claims that 2009 would be different. That this isn’t 1986, because we have more stuff at the border designed to keep people out. But the problem is, border security isn’t enough to stop illegal immigration. In fact, many of the illegal immigrants in the U.S. are overstays—those who came to the U.S. on a legal visa and just stay here permanently. Having Border Patrol agents on the Southwest border won’t do anything to stop those folks. And the worst decision would be to dampen legal immigration in an effort to stop illegal.

So what should America do? It’s obviously not something we should ignore—Heritage and the report both agree on that. But the comprehensive approach advocated by the report just always winds up meaning an amnesty. A better approach would be to secure the border, enforce the law here in the United States to ensure that people return home, open up legal avenues of immigration, and provide a market-based temporary worker program. Proponents of amnesty always try to paint immigration as a choice between a costly amnesty and the forced deportation of each and every illegal immigrant in the U.S. This approach is deeply flawed. The better solution is to rely on law enforcement and market forces to stop undocumented labor while supporting legitimate opportunities for immigrants to come here.

This report is not the first to tout legalization, and it probably won’t be the last. And while its ‘bi-partisan’ nature is certainly attractive, it doesn’t make legalization anymore than a costly amnesty.