By RONALD BROWNSTEIN
LOS ANGELES TIMES
The simmering debate about illegal immigration arguably revolves around a single distinction.
One side says the problem is that Washington will not enforce the existing immigration laws. The other says the existing laws cannot be enforced, at least with a rational expenditure of money and manpower.
These contrasting assessments of the problem drive the competing proposals to solve it -- some of which are visible in two immigration bills that were prepared for introduction in Congress last week.
Those banking on enforcement believe that the United States can radically reduce the number of migrants crossing illegally from Mexico if we turn the screws tighter.
This camp propelled the legislation President Bush recently signed that discouraged states from providing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. It cheered the "Minutemen" who monitored the border in Arizona with volunteer patrols this spring. It wants to fortify the U.S. Border Patrol with more agents and advanced technology. And it's pushing a bill that would nudge local law enforcement agencies to assume more responsibility for pursuing illegal immigrants.
The assumption linking these ideas is that so many illegal immigrants cross the border (maybe 800,000 a year) because America hasn't sincerely tried to stop them. "The immigration law is designed to look tough but not be enforced," says Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies.
In a recent paper, "Downsizing Illegal Immigration," Krikorian laid out a sweeping long-term strategy for the enforcement camp. In it, he proposed a policy of "attrition" that would impose more enforcement pressure on the border and at the workplace and also demand proof of citizenship at all the checkpoints of modern life, "such as getting a driver's license, registering an automobile, opening a bank account ... and obtaining government services of any kind."
The goal, he writes, wouldn't be to significantly increase arrests but to make it so unpleasant for illegal immigrants that more will leave and fewer will try to enter the United States.
The other side argues that the economic incentives are so great for Mexicans to immigrate illegally to the United States -- and for American employers to hire them -- that relying primarily on enforcement to stop the flow would be like passing a law to reverse the tide. Block one route, they argue, and immigrants will simply shift to another along the 2,000-mile border.
Last month, the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, offered powerful ammunition to those skeptical of an enforcement-first solution. In a study, Princeton University sociologist Douglas S. Massey used government statistics and data from a Princeton project tracking Mexican migrants to argue that the big increase in U.S. enforcement spending over the last 20 years has been not only ineffective but also counterproductive.
By toughening enforcement in the most frequently trafficked areas, Massey wrote, the United States has compelled illegal immigrants to cross in more remote locations. But that shift, he concluded, has failed to reduce the overall level of illegal entry and instead has triggered a series of unfavorable consequences.
One is a rising death rate for immigrants. Another is a declining apprehension rate: The Border Patrol now catches only about 1 in 20 illegal immigrants, compared to about 1 in 3 during the 1980s, according to the Princeton data. By Massey's calculations, that means the United States now spends about $1,700 for each illegal immigrant it catches, compared to just $100 in 1986, when the enforcement push began.
Forcing Mexicans to cross the border in more remote areas has increased the amount of money they spend to reach United States, Massey acknowledges. But in a final irony, he reports his data show that the average illegal immigrant now stays longer in the United States, presumably in part to earn back the increased cost of their border crossing.
For Massey and others in this camp, changing the law is the key to enforcing it. They argue that a properly designed guest worker program would drastically reduce the flow of undocumented workers. That, they maintain, would allow government to target its resources on terrorists or drug smugglers still trying to sneak through. Likewise, they say the only way to identify the 11 million or so illegal immigrants now in the United States is to entice them out of the shadows with a program that promises a transition to eventual legal status.
The principal immigration reform proposal so far introduced in Congress, a bipartisan collaboration between Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., John McCain, R-Ariz., and some surprising co-sponsors such as conservative Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., leans toward this analysis. It includes some measures to stiffen border security. But mostly it attempts to divert the illegal flow of Mexican labor into a legal and orderly process through a guest worker program for future migrants and a path toward "earned legalization" for the millions already in the United States without documentation.
Rep. Thomas G. Tancredo, R-Colo., a leader among immigration skeptics, was to introduce legislation that will likely rally the enforcement hard-liners. Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., also planned to unveil a bill that will probably become the mainstream conservative alternative to McCain and Kennedy: tougher on enforcement, less generous toward guest workers.
Massey's research makes a powerful case that enforcement alone will never end illegal immigration. But a comprehensive attack on the problem probably won't pass Congress without more support for enforcement.
Each side in this debate thus needs the other. Without a greater investment in enforcement, it probably won't be possible to modernize the immigration laws through an effective guest worker plan. But without modernized laws, a greater investment in enforcement probably won't yield much more control over the border.
X Ronald Brownstein is a national political correspondent for the Times.