Economics, Pethokoukis

Is this the compromise on low-skilled immigration America needs?

What should Washington do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States?

Well, first let’s get a handle on who they are, exactly. A new piece in the always must-read National Affairs is a great place to start. Boston College’s Peter Skerry points out that the undocumented represent 5% of the labor force, with 60% from Mexico. Among adults, they’re more male than female, with nearly half of men single and childless. Almost half have not completed high school, and nearly a third have less than a ninth-grade education. Yet undocumented men work at higher rates than American men, although not at jobs particularly high paying or glamorous. Still, as of 2008, 35% were homeowners, and 40% had health insurance. They also generally show a higher level of satisfaction with America than its own citizens.

If we assume that having a large population of illegal immigrants is unacceptable — something both left and right seem to agree on — what next? Skerry recommends a middle ground between two unacceptable extremes, amnesty with a path to citizenship and deportation. Skerry would offer what he calls “permanent non-citizen resident” status. It would be granted on a one-time basis to as many of the undocumented as possible, excepting those with criminal records. Unlike legal permanent residents, or green-card holders, permanent non-citizen residents would be prohibited from ever becoming eligible for naturalization. Skerry also sees other restrictions that are certainly as onerous as those now on legal permanent residents such as not being able to vote in state and national elections.

But what about the idea of creating a “path to citizenship? Who says the undocumented want one? Skerry notes that a quarter century after the 1980s amnesty, only 41% of the nearly 2.7 million individuals who became legal permanent residents had gone on to exercise the option to naturalize. “In other words, when offered the chance to become citizens, the overwhelming majority of the undocumented have settled for less.”

Now, this seems like the start of a reasonable compromise. But while Democrats and Republicans argue over the issue, the biggest factor in future immigration may be the improvement in the Mexican economy. While the weak US economy has put net immigration at a standstill, in the future the driving factor may be radically improved opportunities at home.

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