04/26/2013 01:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2013

Rube Goldberg Immigration Fix

The Gang of 8 prepared the immigration reform proposal. The intentions are noble. The proposed measures promise improvement, but the concept and mechanics of how it should be done look like a Rube Goldberg masterpiece.

When an engineer is given an assignment, first he or she tries to understand what the objective is - what needs to be fixed. The Gang of 8 skipped this step. They did not ask what caused our immigration mess, they did not ask why we have millions of people crossing our borders illegally; they just hoped to get results by adding new elements and more money into already convoluted system. They did not ask how we can resolve our problems by simplifying what we do so far; they took the Rube Goldberg approach.

Border security

Why do millions of people cross our borders illegally? Who are they? Is there anything we can do to stop them doing so anymore? Everyone knows the answers. We have millions of people entering here illegally because they can find the jobs they need. We can snivel as much as we want that greedy American employers do not want to pay higher wages to Americans and underpay immigrants. Our moaning will not change the fact that we have a global economy now. If anywhere in the world there is a worker willing to perform a given job at certain pay rate, if we effectively restrict an American employer from hiring this worker, someone else will hire this person. The American employer will be not competitive on the global market anymore.

The logical question would be to ask, how many of these foreign workers does our economy need? We can estimate this by checking how many illegal immigrants arrived in the past. No one knows exactly, but from different sources one can estimate that before the recession, it was more than 500,000 per year, maybe even close to 1,000,000 in some years. Now, during the recession, it is estimated around 200,000, but the flow is negative, as more illegal immigrants leave than arrive. Of course we do not want to stay in the recession; hence, we have to be prepared that a booming economy might require an influx of at least 500,000, or up to one million, foreign workers every year. If we create a system allowing them to come here legally they will have no reason to cross the border illegally or overstay visitors' visas. If we create a system that American employers can legally obtain the workers they want, they will have no reason to hire illegal immigrants. One may say that the greed of some employers has no limits and they will still try to take advantage of some foreigners and employ them illegally for a fraction they would need to pay legally. It is true to the extent that this is not different from someone trying to make an extra buck by breaking any other labor laws. As long as most people can legally get what they consider justifiable, they will report law-breakers to authorities. We do not have this within our current immigration system.

If we let in legally about one million more of guest workers each year, for any foreigner planning to work and maybe settling in the U.S. it will be unappealing and unnecessary to cross the border illegally or overstay a visa. This way we can solve the border security problem, as the only people crossing the border illegally will be criminals. Consequently, the border security issue will be separated from the immigration policy, and should not even be included in the immigration bill. But, there is the reason why our noble Gang of 8 did not go this path.

Big elephant in the room

During the last 25 years, an average of about one million foreigners per year received a so-called "green card", meaning permanent residency status in the U.S. At the same time, we accumulated about 12 million illegal immigrants, about half a million per year. It needs to be clarified that among those receiving legal immigration status about 55% are so called status adjustments. This simply means people already living in the U.S. illegally or on temporary visas, who found a way to legalize their presence. Only about 480,000 legal immigrants per year are actually arriving from abroad. Comparing this with estimated illegal arrivals, one can see that counting people coming here, more than half of them arrived illegally. One can blame people; I would say that people follow what is the most logical path in the system we have. Putting aside for a while what to do with people already illegally here, if we want to avoid repetition of what we have now, we need to be prepared to accept yearly anywhere between 1.5-2 million guest workers and immigrants, instead of about 1 million now. This is the big elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. In the recent poll, 55% of voters are against increased legal immigration, and only 28% are for increased immigration.

Regardless what is said or written about this or any other immigration reform proposal, nothing can be accomplished until these numbers are reversed, until at least 55% of voters support meaningful increase of legal immigration. Senators can debate the immigration reform proposal endlessly but most of them will not vote for the act that most of their voters do not support. The Gang of 8 applied Rube Goldberg's tangle to the extent that they themselves seem to believe that somehow miraculously the numbers will click. They will not.

It became obvious when known opponents of immigration testified during the Senate hearings. The culmination occurred when Sen. Durbin questioned Kris W. Kobach. After they were bargaining for a few minutes over whom to allow and whom not to immigrate, the obvious question to ask Mr.Kobach would be: how many immigrants would you accept, if any? Mr.Kobach is a legal counsel for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). On their website one can read that "FAIR seeks to improve border security, to stop illegal immigration, and to promote immigration levels consistent with the national interest--more traditional rates of about 300,000 a year." It is less than one third of what we have now and about one sixth what we need in order to be able to control immigration. Sen. Durbin did not ask the question which could expose the ridiculousness of Mr. Kobach's views. I can only guess that Sen. Durbin did not do it as in return, Mr. Kobach would ask if the proposed immigration reform would end up with increased immigration. Sen. Durbin did not want to answer this question either. How we can have an honest debate if we avoid the most important issue?

Can we find a way around?

No. The situation is direr than most media commentators acknowledge. Organizations such as FAIR and Center for Immigration Studies (also testified during Senate hearings) have deeply imbedded in the minds of Americans that immigrants take their jobs; that immigration is net cost to taxpayers. This is simply not true. If more people are willing to work for less, more wealth is created. This wealth stays here. People have more money to buy things, government collects more in taxes. The part of the anti-immigration rhetoric is that only rich people benefit from the work of immigrants. If we go this path we can also ask the government to slow the technological progress as with every innovation rich people get richer before everybody else can benefit. After all, being entrepreneurial also means the ability to find cheaper workers. If Americans want to benefit from the dynamic economy, they have to be prepared that their jobs can be done cheaper and better by someone else. That someone else might be an immigrant. Or if we will not let them in, that job may move abroad.

Talking about technological progress, immigration takes blame for it as well. For example, construction workers are against increased immigration. Not long ago, it took weeks for a team of carpenters to build a frame of a house. Now walls come prefabricated. It takes a crane, one skilled man and one unskilled helper to put the house frame together within hours. That unskilled helper might be an immigrant, but this is not the reason that carpenters are losing their jobs. Similarly, not long ago computer programmers were prima ballerinas. Now they are produced by the millions in Asia. Software programming became commoditized. Unless you are a superstar, you cannot make as much as before. Again, Americans blame immigrants and outsourcing for this change.

The border protection as envisioned by immigration opponents and adopted by the Gang of 8 is laughable. By policing the border they will be able to prevent illegal border crossing as much as the government was able to stop production and distribution of alcohol during Prohibition. As long as jobs will be here, people will find the way to cross the border illegally. If physical protection will be perfected, bribing people we hired to guard the border will become the most common way to cross the border illegally. However, if all measures to stop people from coming and working here will be more effective than now; more jobs that these people could do will go abroad. In that sense the physical borders will become irrelevant. Advocates of protecting American jobs will need to ask for limiting foreign trade and disconnecting the internet connection with the outside world. Americans and the leaders on Capitol Hill need to decide if they want to be a part of global economy, or do they want autarky.

Until recently, most Americans opposed legalization of presently illegal immigrants. Recent opinion polls indicate that this has changed, and now most Americans accept that we have to find a way to let them stay here legally. The same change needs to happen in regards to expected size of legal immigration. The Gang of 8, together with other realistic politicians, needs to show some leadership qualities; they need to stand in front of Americans and tell them loud and clear that most of them are wrong on their views about immigration. They need to explain that if we want to benefit from the global economy, we have to take advantage of our infrastructure and stable political system, and be prepared to double the number of immigrants allowed for the next twenty years or so. After changing views of voters, they need to rewrite their proposal, making it simpler. If this is not accomplished, even if some lame immigration reform bill is voted in, it will be as effective in ending our immigration mess as any other Rube Goldberg invention.

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