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A Way To Common Ground In California

By Hans Johnson, research fellow, and Mark Baldassare, research director, Public Policy Institute of California
This opinion article appeared in the San Diego Union-Tribune on April 2, 2006

Today, there are more than 10 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. – an all-time high. As the numbers have grown, and with contentious bills now being debated in Congress, illegal immigration has become one of the most heated and divisive issues in the nation. But only recently has the focus turned from rhetoric toward pragmatic solutions that seem to have broad, bipartisan public support. This is common ground that Californians may have already found.

Most policymakers and experts agree that the large and rapidly growing number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. show that our current policies are not working. The legislative proposals now under consideration in Congress vary widely, from measures concentrating primarily on enforcement – including a bill passed by the House that would build a fence along much of the U.S.-Mexico border and make it a felony to reside in the U. S. without legal authorization – to bills now being deliberated in the Senate that would provide legal status for undocumented immigrants through a new guest worker program. The outcomes of these proposals are uncertain – as is the likelihood that they will accomplish the goal of reducing the flow of illegal immigration.

Over the past 15 years, federal efforts to reduce illegal immigration have focused on border enforcement. The number of Border Patrol agents has increased, equipment has been modernized, and fences have been built. Vigilante groups that unofficially patrol the border, and the recently passed House bill to build a fence along the border, reflect the sentiment that illegal immigration can be stemmed – if not completely stopped – by sufficient enforcement. The volunteer efforts to patrol the border also underscore the public's perception that current federal policies are failing. To date, all of the increased border enforcement has actually resulted in more illegal immigrants.

Indeed, the large border build-up has had the unintended consequence of increasing the number of illegal immigrants living in the United States. Because enforcement has increased the danger and cost of crossing the border, many migrants who succeed in crossing now stay longer than they did before. People who were cyclical crossers have now become long-term settlers. Moreover, border enforcement has had no effect on the many immigrants who enter this country legally, with a tourist visa for example, and then overstay or otherwise violate the terms of their visa, thus becoming illegal immigrants.

We need federal policies that address the realities of illegal immigration. Specifically, policy reforms must find ways to deal with the economic forces and family ties that draw so many to America. They also must consider the more than 10 million illegal immigrants already residing in the U.S., many of whom are the parents of U.S.-born children and the spouses of legal U.S. residents. They have to take into account the logistical, economic and humanitarian difficulties of attempting to identify and deport a population that is the size of Ohio. Imprisoning over 10 million illegal immigrants would cause the nation's prison population to increase more than sevenfold.

The economic imbalance between the U.S and other countries will inevitably draw illegal immigrants. Therefore, any successful policy must reduce the allure of jobs. One way is by developing meaningful employer sanctions, including accurate and verifiable documents that show an individual's right to live and work in the United States. Policies that encourage economic development in immigrants' home countries will reduce the poverty and lack of jobs that pushes so many to migrate in the first place.

Comprehensive immigration reform should also provide a legal avenue for workers who are employed by U.S. companies. A guest worker program could provide needed labor, and provide a means of legalizing the status of current illegal immigrants. A program that does not include the option of adjusting to permanent legal status after some years of working here, however, would likely lead many guest workers to become illegal residents when their tenure as a guest worker ends.

During the past decade, illegal immigration has directly accounted for 12 percent of the state's population growth – providing workers in manufacturing, agriculture, restaurants and services. GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and some of the Democratic members of the state Legislature have loudly disagreed about the merits of passing a state law that would offer driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Yet, as these issues intensify, Californians seem ready for pragmatic solutions.

Residents' attitudes toward illegal immigrants have moderated since 1994 – a time when Los Angeles civil unrest, a weak economy and budget deficits had heightened public anxieties. Just five years later, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) Statewide Surveys found that 75 percent of Californians believed that illegal immigrant children should not be barred from attending public schools. In 2002, a majority of Californians said illegal immigrants and their children should have access to public services. In a our September 2005 poll, 56 percent held the view that “immigrants are a benefit to California because of their hard work and job skills,” while just 36 percent described immigrants as “a burden to California because they use public services.”

Still, the recent PPIC Statewide Surveys have also found that illegal immigration is a major issue in the minds of residents. Our December poll found that half of Californians believed illegal immigration contributed “a lot” to their region's population growth – considerably more than the one in four who mentioned births, interstate migration and legal immigration. In our March survey, immigration or illegal immigration was topped only by education when an open-ended question asked California voters to name the most important issue in this election year.

In dealing with these concerns, Californians find broad areas of policy agreement that cross partisan and regional divides. For instance, residents are widely in favor of a guest worker program that would provide work permits to illegal immigrants, something that is at the heart of the current debate in Washington. In the PPIC Survey last October, six in 10 Californians said illegal immigrants should be allowed to apply for work permits that would allow them to “stay and work in the United States.” In our poll this January, seven in 10 Californians favored a guest worker program that would allow illegal immigrants who have jobs to live and work in the U.S. for a fixed period of time – with strong support from Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives, whites and Latinos and Northern and Southern California residents.

Californians are also skeptical about the effectiveness of border enforcement. In our 1999 survey, only 13 percent believed increased border enforcement would make a big difference in preventing illegal immigration. Last October, by a 2-1 margin, the PPIC Survey found that Californians oppose allowing citizen volunteer groups to patrol the border to keep out illegal immigrants.

Clearly, a complicated set of priorities and agendas continues to drive the debate around illegal immigration. The economic conflicts and the competing interests of businesses and residents might be difficult to resolve. Congress will have to make compromises for meaningful reform to be possible. Californians may be able to lead the way.


Holding the Line? The Effect of Recent Border Build-up on Unauthorized Immigration

Just the Facts: Immigrants in California

PPIC Statewide Survey: Californians and Their Government, March 2006