Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Stupid and Impossible
21st Century Immigration Law

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 27, 2010 --  

Righteous anger over America's broken immigration system is piling bad laws on top of stupid ones.

Unless you've been living under a rock for the past week, you've probably already heard about Arizona's new immigration law. The law requires local police to request and inspect the papers of anyone who they reasonably suspect of being an illegal immigrant. "Fascism!" cry the law's detractors. "U.S.A., U.S.A.!" chant the law's supporters. Has America's immigration debate really devolved into such asinine discourse?

Sadly, it has. America's dysfunctional immigration policy has languished for decades, and especially so since the collapse of immigration reform proposals in Congress in the summer of 2007. The United States maintains an antiquated system of restrictive immigration quotas, dating to 1921, that has not changed since 1990, when caps were adjusted to a theoretical 700,000 legal immigrants per year1 (with other laws typically allowing about 50 percent more arrivals.)2 This rate of legal immigration is far below long-term historic immigration rates, and far short of demand. Simply put, the law is completely out of touch with reality. Attempts to cap immigration through legislation are stupid and impossible.

Consider that at the peak year of American immigration, in 1914, 1.2 million3 people were allowed to come to the country -- equal to about 1.3 percent of the country's population at the time. While the overall numbers where high, this rate was not unusual by earlier historical standards. A few generations earlier, in 1850, the annual legal immigration rate was 1.6 percent of the population.4 Last year, legal immigration arrivals as a percentage of U.S. population was a measly 0.4 percent.

For much of the last century, U.S. law has refused to allow immigration at these historic rates. Yet this has done little to stop immigrants from coming. Denied legal alternatives, would-be migrants simply seek other means -- overstaying tourist visas, hiding in shipping containers, and wading across the Rio Grande.

But rather than giving up on this failed policy, the government has spent much of the past decade ratcheting up enforcement. And like a desperate gambler who doubles down on a bad bet, the government has only made things worse. Increased enforcement at major land crossings has simply pushed migrants to cross in the most remote area available -- the Arizona desert.

This barren expanse is extremely dangerous. But like the unrealistic law, the desert's hazards have not succeeded in stemming the flow. The Border Patrol located 2.4 million "deportable aliens" in its Yuma and Tucson sectors of Arizona over the five years ending in 2008 -- 48 percent of the people it located anywhere.5 This Arizona proportion is up from only 40 percent during the five years prior.6

In the crazy and dangerous game of cat and mouse fought by migrants and the Border Patrol, Arizona residents end up suffering the consequences. Migrants trample ranches, leave trails of garbage, and break into residences for water or food when the perilous trip brings them to the brink of death. And once they arrive in Tucson or Phoenix, the immigrants strain local social services that were never designed to serve a modern day Ellis Island.

Given what the brain dead federal policy has forced them to put up with, it is no surprise that Arizona's people are all riled up about illegal immigration -- they are the Americans who are on the front lines. And given the impotence of Arizonans to fix federal policy, it is again no surprise that they enact local laws that seek to address the problem.

Let there be no mistake -- the Arizona law is bad policy. Critics are right that it will violate civil liberties, yield dubious results, and probably fail to survive a court challenge. Yet to the extent that the law has revived a stagnant national debate about an unacceptable status quo, the legislation is more than welcome.

The one and only solution to the stampede across the Arizona border is to correct federal law to allow many more legal migrants each year. Doing so may cause immigration to rise overall, but at least it would be in a controlled fashion. While this will prove unpopular with Americans worried about competing for jobs at a time of high unemployment, the reality is that they are already facing this competition -- the only difference is whether their competitors have to cross the Arizona desert first.

Convincing Americans of this reality may be an uphill battle, but as the new Arizona law proves, the status quo is no longer acceptable.

Related Web Columns:

Submitting to the Rising Tide, June 12, 2007

Meet the Parasites, April 4, 2006

Out of the Sand!
America's Failed Immigration Policy
, July 22, 2003

Crossing Borders With Uncrossed T's, April 2, 2002

Constitutional Rights: DENIED, December 11, 2001

Profoundly Evil
The Deadly Face of Modern Migration
, June 27, 2000

Lessons of the Conquistadors, April 4, 2000

Constitutional Apartheid
America's New Political Underclass
, March 9, 1999


1. Center for Immigration Studies, Three Decades of Mass Immigration, The Legacy of the 1965 Immigration Act, September 1995

2. Department of Homeland Security, 2009 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Persons Obtaining Legal Permanent Resident Status: Fiscal Years 1820 to 2009, as posted April 2010

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid. (370,000 immigrants in 1850, 1.2 million in 1915, 1.1 million legal immigrants in 2009), U.S. Census Bureau (US population in 1850 was 23 million., in 1910 it was 92 million, in 2008 it was 300 million)

5. Department of Homeland Security, 2008 Yearbook of Immigration Statistics, Deportable Aliens Located by Program and Border Patrol Sector and Investigatins Special, August 2009

6. Ibid.