Walls, amnesties, and an immigration policy that makes sense


So far at The Daily Chrenk I have avoided getting involved in the highly contentious and bitter immigration debate in the United States, which has now become the centre-piece of the presidential contest. Many of you know I have certain strong, though I hope well-reasoned, views about immigration in the Australian context, and in a more general sense, the European one. Part of it comes from my own personal life story as someone who once left his home in the Old World and was welcomed in a new one, Australia, though in circumstances nowhere as dramatic as those faced by many of the refugee claimants today. I would like to think that I understand the variety of positions on the issue, without necessarily agreeing with many of them.

Donald Trump’s immigration back-flip the other day got me thinking more about the challenges faced by the United States. Clearly, this is an issue that goes to the heart of nationhood, and therefore perhaps one that radically divides people across the political spectrum.

My starting point is that borders are a reality, and every nation has a right to determine, in the words of a former Australian prime minister, who comes in and the circumstances under which they come. Second rate politicians and third rate human beings like the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, might think that borders are the “worst invention” ever produced by the politicians (funny how these sorts of people always live behind high fences and keep their doors locked), but his is very much a minority views, albeit a very prominent and influential minority.

The situation in the United States where there are currently at least 12 million illegal residents and hundreds of thousands cross the porous border illegally each year is ridiculous. No one has a right to live and work wherever they want in the world. Migration is a process that involves two parties – the migrant and the destination – and the latter cannot be left without a say in the matter. This is so even if you are a poor Ecuadorian who wants a better life in the wealthy United States. There are billions of poor people around the world who would probably love to live in the United States or another developed country, but neither their disadvantage nor their ability to get there should be decisive factors in determining their future.

I’m increasingly of the view that a serious, feasible and politically sustainable immigration policy from now and into the future needs to include both a wall and an amnesty, or more specifically it needs to rest on three pillars: first, ensuring that the borders are as impregnable as possible; second, that most of those who are already in are given a pathway to legalising their status; and third, that the future – legal – intake of immigrants will be smart, sensible and in national interest.

All these elements reinforce one another and make the others politically sellable as part of the overall package to those who would otherwise find any one of them by itself to be unpalatable.

No border is ever impregnable; even if the United States was surrounded by a 100 per cent people-proof fence there would still be large numbers of people residing illegally, for example those who overstay their visas. But you cannot simply have a border that’s merely an abstract and inconsequential line on the map, regularly crossed on the ground with sufficient ease by a large number of people. I think that a wall of some kind along the Mexican border, where most illegal crossings take place, if expensive, is feasible and probably a necessity to stem and control the flow.

What about the 12 million or more people who are currently in the United States illegally? Can they all be simply picked up, packed, and shipped out? It is probably technically achievable, at least to a large extent, but I don’t think it’s politically feasible. There should not be a blanket amnesty either, but the majority – those without criminal records, those who have been gainfully employed, those whose families have grown up in the US – should be given a pathway to permanent (legal) residency. Yes, many people will object that this not only rewards illegal behaviour but also encourages future illegal behaviour. That’s where “the wall” comes in. I think you can sell “the amnesty” to many of those people on the understanding that this will be effectively the last one, because in the future it will be near impossible to illegally get into the country, and furthermore, those who somehow manage to, will be deported. Clear rules, clearly applied, from now on.

(Conversely, the wall can be sold to many of those who would otherwise oppose it on the basis that it won’t “punish” the millions who are already in. There won’t be deportations, there won’t be heartbreak and drama and controversy, but you must accept that the immigration system will now work to prevent this set of circumstances from arising ever again in the future.)

Lastly, the United States needs a reasonable future legal migrant intake, one that places less emphasis on endless chain family reunions and importing millions of low or no-skilled workers, and more emphasis on bringing those who have the necessary background and skills to contribute to American economy, those who will be less reliant on welfare and will instead work, or better still, create jobs, especially in those areas where there might be skills shortages. A broad-based immigration intake will always include refugees and those bringing over their family members, but the emphasis should be on those who (unlike the majority of the refugees and family members) can start net benefitting their new home country in the short term onwards. This is basis of the Australian immigration system.

While the wall and the amnesty go towards solving the current problems, refocusing the intake works for the future. This too is an argument in favour of the complete package for those who would oppose an amnesty because they are generally worried about both the quantity and the quality of both the legal and the illegal immigration flows into the United States.

This proposal will not make everyone happy; large minorities of both the anti-immigration populists on the right and the open border believers on the left will oppose it because for each group it contains an element they can’t support (amnesty for the illegals and ending illegal migration respectively). But I believe the moderate sections of the right and the left on this issue, as well as the somewhat ambivalent centre, could all embrace this grand compromise. I don’t believe, however, that it could be politically sold to the electorate by either Trump or Clinton, who are too contentious and too tainted. Ideally, this project could find bipartisan support, or at least a less polarising politician with a broader appeal.

Immigration should benefit the host country, and it generally does, but it must be an ordered, sensible and transparent process. It’s not too late to put it right.