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By Philippe Legrain 2 COMMENTS

The White House and leading US senators have agreed a deal that could pave the way towards a reform of the US immigration system. Details of the deal are available here.

On the plus side, the package provides a pathway for the 12 million illegal immigrants in the US to regularise their situation – but only if heads of household first return to their home country and only after paying fees and a $5,000 fine. Why insist on people going back first? That is no easy matter for immigrants from, for instance, China. It would also make sense if such a hefty fine could be paid back over time, though the tax system, for instance.

The proposed temporary-worker programme is also an improvement on existing rules, which make it almost impossible for low-skilled immigrants to come work in the US legally. But unfortunately, the workers will be extremely temporary: their work visas will only be valid for two years. Visas could be renewed twice, but only if workers return home for a year in between. It would be far better if the visas could be renewed repeatedly, without a year’s break. Many "temporary" workers may be tempted to stay on illegally once their time is up – a situation that could be avoided if the visas could be renewed repeatedly.

On the minus side, the US appears to be going down the Australian route of a points-based immigration system focused on skills. That is a mistake, because the US does not just need workers with advanced degrees, it also needs low-skilled workers. What’s more, government bureaucrats cannot possibly second-guess the needs of the millions of American businesses any more than they can pick winners in other domains of the economy. They are bound to make costly mistakes. And such an approach allows nothing for serendipity: that people end up contributing to society in unexpected ways.

The building of a high-tech border wall also sends a costly and unfortunate message that the United States, a country built by immigrants, now sees immigrants as a threat. Yet immigrants are not an invading army, they are hard-working and enterprising people moving in search of a better life – the essence of the American Dream.

Moreover, like the Maginot line that failed to protect France from the German army in World War II, America’s border defences will inevitably be bypassed: people can be smuggled, visas overstayed, documents forged or stolen, officials bribed.

Of course, if the temporary-worker programme is large and wide-ranging enough, the pressure to migrate illegally will drop in any case – which is why it is rather odd that the temporary-worker programme will only be set up after the new border-security measures are in place. Such a delay may make political sense, but it makes little sense in practical terms.

All in all, the deal is a big step forward, but still falls far short of an ideal solution. It remains to be seen, of course, whether even this limited compromise can muster a majority in the Senate and after that the House of Representatives.

Posted 17 May 2007 in Blog
  1. andreas says:

    “like the Maginot line that failed to protect France from the German army in World War II, America’s border defences will inevitably be bypassed”
    Oh. My. God. That has to be the most idiotic thing you’ve ever written. So what, France should have just done NOTHING and agreed to let the Germans in? France’s defenses were breached by the most organized and powerful ARMY in the world at the time. America’s are breached a ragtag bunch of illiterate peasants.
    You frighten me sometimes Philippe, I really wonder about your psyche when I see an analogy like that: you clearly view immigration as an invasion, only you are a Quisling and see this as a good thing.

  2. Philippe Legrain says:

    You have misunderstood me, wilfully or not. I said that, by building a border wall, the US is treating immigrants as if they were an invading army, when in fact they are not.
    At the same time, I don’t believe the new border defences will keep Mexicans out: the history of the last 20 years shows that border walls have diverted migration flows (just as the Maginot line diverted the German army) not stopped them.

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