Anchor babies, birthing centers, giant walls, mass deportations: The debate over immigration in the U.S. presidential campaign often calls to mind a hyperventilating Hollywood drama rather than a calm, intelligent discussion.
The most urgent issue is not the cost of illegal immigration, because that cost is modest at worst. The challenge is to reform the country’s immigration system — which still labors under principles from the 1950s — so that it works for the 21st century.
It’s wrong to call for this discussion to be postponed until the border is secure, as some Republicans wish, since securing the border (insofar as that’s possible) goes hand in hand with fixing the system. And it’s simply delusional, as some Republicans also wish, to think that the roughly 11 million unauthorized immigrants already in the country can be deported or somehow wished away.
As a practical matter, and putting humanitarian considerations aside, deportations on anything like that scale would take years and involve prohibitive expense — both directly and through their wider economic effects. It isn’t going to happen. In most cases, some way to render the presence of unauthorized immigrants lawful will have to be found.
However, this in turn requires another question to be answered: What about the 4.4 million would-be immigrants stuck in the queue for legal permanent residency? At current rates of admission, some of these applicants will have to wait more than two decades before their visas are granted. This backlog — which grew 2.3 percent last year — involves a big economic cost in its own right and encourages illegal immigration as well. It springs from outdated priorities that threaten the U.S.’s future as a thriving nation of immigrants.