In 1986, the United States decided to resolve its illegal immigration problem once and for all. The government offered amnesty to more than three million undocumented workers – mainly Mexicans. It also vowed to stem the flow of people flooding in by cracking down on employers who hired illegal workers, and tightening the borders.
That didn’t happen. Today, the United States has 11 million undocumented workers, and immigration reform is on the front burner once again. The U.S. Senate is set to debate new laws that will presumably succeed where the old ones failed. “Amnesty” will be replaced by something called a “path to citizenship.” This time, the border will be tightened up for real and the crackdown on employers will have teeth. To mollify employers who rely on cheap labour, the guest worker program will be greatly expanded.
U.S. immigration policy contrasts starkly with our own. Canada and Australia have given increasing importance to education, skills and language proficiency, and they are discouraging the chain migration that results from importing relatives. In the United States, only a small percentage of immigration is skills-based, and family reunification is a major source of newcomers. Today, most of Canada’s immigrants come from Asia and are reasonably upwardly mobile. Most of the immigrants to the U.S. come from Mexico and other Hispanic countries, and are overwhelmingly concentrated at the bottom of the work force.
The rapid growth in Hispanic immigration has changed the face of America. Hispanics now make up 17 per cent of the population. In California, they make up 38 per cent of the population, and will outnumber whites by next year. With Silicon Valley billionaires and stoop-labour migrants, California is a stark example of the nation’s growing inequality.
The U.S. Senate is sharply split over the details of immigration reform. But the general enthusiasm for Hispanic immigration is spread among both parties. The Hispanic vote elected Barack Obama, and Republicans believe they’re doomed unless they get a piece of this vote. Many Republicans believe that a large supply of cheap labour is good for business, and that certain industries would be crippled without it. Many Democrats believe that some form of amnesty is a moral imperative, and that the nation has a moral duty to welcome the world’s poor and huddled masses. The mainstream media shy away from hard questions for fear of seeming bigoted, or worse. Many people among America’s elites believe that questioning the value or costs of immigration is tantamount to racism.
Ironically, some of sharpest critics of America’s immigration policy are liberal academics. The real issue, they argue, isn’t illegal immigration, but the high number of low-skilled immigrants. “The winners are the employers who get cheap labour,” wrote Harvard’s Christopher Jencks, a renowned social scientist, in an influential 2001 essay. “… The losers are unskilled American-born workers.” The biggest losers of all are African-Americans, the very people liberal Democrats want to help most.
There’s another unacknowledged problem, according to Prof. Jencks. Many of the children of unskilled immigrants assimilate down – which means that instead of acquiring the habits of the successful middle class, they acquire the habits of the underclass. Hispanic immigrants don’t resemble earlier generations of Italians and Greeks, many of whose children worked hard, did well in school and joined the American mainstream. Second- and third-generation Hispanics are far more likely to drop out, avoid marriage and remain relatively poor. Too few acquire the skills that are increasingly necessary to thrive in the modern economy. They risk becoming stuck in a permanent underclass.
“Our immigration policies have been spinning out of control for decades,” wrote George Borjas, another Harvard academic. America’s new zeal for immigration reform probably won’t do anything to fix that. Fortunately for Canada, ours is an awfully hard country for illegal immigrants to get to. We’ve also figured out that it’s better to import engineers than pool cleaners.