Americans across the political spectrum agree that our immigration system is broken. A recent Gallup poll found that 87% of Republicans, 55% of Independents and even 40% of Democrats are dissatisfied with the current level of migration to the United States.
It’s no mystery why voters are frustrated with the status quo. Over 2 million people illegally crossed the southern border last year, an all-time record. This unprecedented influx has strained the health care and school systems in border states. It has also contributed to soaring rents — which have jumped nearly 18% from February 2021 to this February — since all these newcomers need a roof over their heads.
Our legal immigration system, meanwhile, is a relic of the mid-20th century. It operates mostly on autopilot, bringing in about 1 million additional people each year irrespective of their ability to survive and thrive in a 21st-century economy. These newcomers often lack advanced skills — so they wind up competing against vulnerable Americans for low-wage jobs.
Fortunately, this mess isn’t beyond repair. When reforming immigration policy, our leaders simply need to act like responsible parents.
Good parents set clear, reasonable rules for their kids — and the neighbors’ kids — and then enforce the rules without abuse or favoritism.
A good parent, for instance, wouldn’t allow their strongest child to exploit his younger, weaker siblings or neighbors. Yet that’s exactly what corporate executives have done to vulnerable workers. For decades, Big Business has lobbied its allies in Congress to ensure an ample supply of cheap foreign labor to suppress wages.
African Americans, in particular, have suffered, as Roy Beck’s 2021 book, “Back of the Hiring Line, A 200-Year History of Immigration Surges, Employer Bias, and Depression of Black Wealth” documents. Each “10-percent immigrant-induced increase in the supply of a particular skill group reduced the black wage by 2.5 percent, lowered the employment rate of black men by 5.9 percentage points, and increased the incarceration rate of blacks by 1.3 percentage points” between 1960 and 2000, according to one study by economists at Harvard, University of Chicago and University of California, San Diego.
Immigrants have suffered too — more than a third of workers here illegally have experienced minimum wage violations. Unscrupulous employers can cheat these workers out of pay and force them to endure deplorable conditions, knowing that the laborers are unlikely to report the abuse.
Saying that we care about vulnerable workers — Americans and foreigners alike — but not forcing employers to use tools like E-Verify to prevent them from profiting off illegal labor, is tantamount to a parent saying she cares about her young child’s safety but not checking whether he wears a helmet when biking. Actions speak louder than words.
Similarly, there’s nothing caring or compassionate about a legal immigration system that invites people to our country, regardless of their ability to succeed in the modern economy. The average immigrant is 31 years old. Of the legal immigrants who come on family-sponsored visas — the most common type — 11% are high school dropouts and 42% have only a high school diploma.
Americans of the same age are better educated — and thus better prepared to succeed in our 21st-century economy. Only 6% lack high school diplomas, and 49% have at least an associate degree.
High levels of migration also take a toll on our planet. By many measures, our population is already consuming more natural resources than the environment can sustain. Much of the Southwest faces a scarcity of water. We’ve lost nearly 18,000 square miles of open space to development since 2002, primarily due to population growth.
Welcoming countless newcomers, without regard to the environmental cost, is like telling a child that she can invite as many kids to her birthday party as she wants — without any consideration of whether there will be enough cake to go around.
Good parents prepare their children for the future. That’s how we need to approach immigration policy. We can’t tolerate fearmongering or hatred directed toward the newest members of our society. But we also can’t tolerate a status quo that threatens both the environment and the most vulnerable American workers.
Karen Shragg is an author and environmental consultant.