American Reason: Beyond Border Security

American Reason
The “DREAM” in DREAM Act stands for, “Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors.”

With his failure to get the Dream Act passed, President Obama was unable to deliver on his promise of immigration reform last term. This term, immigration looks to be one of the President’s top priorities and some sort of a new bill should come to a vote in Congress soon. However, there are a number of persistent concerns which may hold up these reforms.

Vikram Patel: Current discussions about immigration reform include many ideas from recent legislative attempts to address the issue such as: a path to citizenship for current illegal immigrants, a stricter employee verification system, streamlined green card process, etc. The one proposal drudged up from the past that may prevent the passage of all of these reforms is a requirement that border security be increased before we make any changes to our immigration system. Though understandable on its face, such a requirement ignores the ineffectiveness of our border security system at curtailing illegal border crossings in comparison to much cheaper employer focused initiatives. Despite great increases in border security spending over the past couple of decades there has been a disproportionate growth in the population of undocumented workers. The dip in illegal immigrant population during the Great Recession showed us that access to employment is the largest factor contributing to illegal border crossings. Therefore, any required increase in funding for border security would be better spent on enforcement of labor laws. Matt, are there effects of increased border security that I am missing that would justify a required increase of funding?

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Matt Sowada: It’s not that you’re missing anything, it’s just that you and I appear to have slightly different definitions of the term “border security.” You seem to think that the term only applies to physically stopping people from entering the country, like with fences and border agents. I consider “border security” to be any and all measures that a nation might take in order to regulate the passage of human beings across its borders. Using resources to meaningfully enforce labor laws is really just an attempt to remove the positive incentives that might entice someone to break the law and enter the country illegally, which is absolutely within my definition of “border security.” So the question “Should we spend money on border security or on employer focused initiatives?” has a simple answer: yes.

V.P.: Well, if we agree that lawmakers are improperly focused on physical border security and we also agree on the best form of deterrence then what should the immigration debate focus on?

M.S.: There are two distinct questions that we need to consider when thinking about comprehensive immigration reform. The first question (the one that border security addresses) is what would we like the immigration system to look like in the future? The system has been broken for some time now, and since no one I’m aware of possesses a Delorean equipped with a flux capacitor, all we can do is try to learn from our mistakes. What I would like is a government as capable as possible of controlling and monitoring who enters and works in this country. Aside from obvious safety concerns, achievement of this would help all workers in America in more immediate ways as well. A manual labor market flooded with workers who are unwilling or unable to report employer abuses because of their legal status is not only unfair to those workers, it drags down the wages that legally employed laborers can demand in exchange for their toilings. It is true that this will increase the costs of some goods, but if it means that workers are treated ethically I’ll gladly pay five dollars for a head of lettuce. I think everyone deserves that level of dignity and respect.

That leads me to the second question: what to do with the many undocumented workers who are already in this country? I tend to sympathize with the notion that many of these people have been here so long that they’ve become integral parts of the national community. True, some haven’t been here that long but sorting out who’s who seems like a Herculean task and I don’t think our nation is up to the challenge. I think the most ethical and achievable solution is a one-time only amnesty, perhaps coupled with a fine as a nod to the rule of law. However, this only makes sense if you establish (my definition of) effective border security first, otherwise you’re creating a moral hazard that will inevitably lead to a repeat of this situation in 20 to 30 years. Can you think of any other way to avoid that?

V.P.: You’re right that reforms require advances in your definition of border security and the measures we have outlined are the best methods to curb any possible moral hazard. Thus far though, we’ve mainly looked at deterrence as a means of preventing illegal actions, but an often equally important part is providing a simple legal avenue. For a Mexican citizen to receive a visa to come to the United States based on family sponsorship the wait is more than 150 years, thereby making this legal option impossible to exercise. Simple changes like lifting or raising the per country limits on visas would go a long way toward making this a viable option. There’s also the matter of how complicated our immigration system is. When my father immigrated to the United States in the 1970s, he was able to do so without the assistance of a lawyer. However, for someone who has come here more recently like my stepmother (college educated, married to an American citizen and could draw on the experience of many friends who have successfully come to the United States), the process requires thousands of dollars in legal fees with possibly years to wait for a successful response (about a year and a half in her case). Potential immigrants need a straightforward system that doesn’t try to use bureaucracy as a deterrent.

Achieving the goals we have outlined above will require concessions from liberals and conservatives. Liberals will need to give up opposition to employment verification systems like E-Verify. Conservatives will need to give up increasing the funding for physical border security and redirect it to enforcing employment regulations and to overhaul the current immigration bureaucracies. Taking a hardline stance will only leave us with the destructive system that we already have in place.

Vikram Patel and Matt Sowada are the friendly adversaries behind the twice-weekly ethical debates series, American Reason. Listen on KRUI every Sunday from 4-5 p.m., and find an archive of the shows (as well as exclusive web-only content) online at