Keep Politics out of Immigration Policy

The outline for a far more rational immigration policy for the U.S. may be taking shape. There is a long way to go, but a meeting between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox in Washington could be the beginning. The U.S. attitude toward immigration is undergoing a sea change, with Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan leading a chorus singing the praises of immigrant contributions to economic growth. It is now clear that without the biggest immigration wave in its history, the U.S. would not have been able to achieve the high growth rates of the '90s. The Bush-Fox meeting promises to open a dialogue that could lead to reform of American immigration policy, shifting it away from a system based on quotas, family, and policing toward one aimed at international negotiations that meet the labor needs of the U.S. and other countries. This could be a welcome breakthrough.

But there is a danger: politics. President Bush's political advisers have made no secret of his desire for Republicans to capture a greater share of the Hispanic vote. Legalizing illegal immigrants in some fashion could attract such votes. And President Fox has said he wants to allow the 8 million Mexicans living in the U.S. to vote in Mexico as well, hoping his party will attract many of them. Shaping a new immigration policy around such political aims is the wrong way to go. It not only discriminates against Asians and Europeans who might want to immigrate to America but it also undermines a key goal of immigration--fostering economic growth.

Right now, the U.S. has a bifurcated immigration system. Legal immigrants are allowed into the country based on family ties and national quotas. Only a tiny sliver, under the H-1B visa program that focuses on high-tech workers, enter to satisfy specific labor needs. Ironically, it is illegal immigration that provides added flexibility to the U.S. labor market and helps meet severe labor shortages in the service, construction, and other industries.

Fox and Bush are starting discussions that could lead to a comprehensive agreement. On the table are visas for guest workers, amnesty for illegal workers, a safer border, and more U.S. business investment in Mexico to increase jobs.

For the first time, Washington would negotiate immigration as it does trade, on a quid pro quo basis. And it would do so within an economic framework. If politicians can restrain themselves, this is the way to go.

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