Whenever the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration bill comes to the floor of the Senate, there will doubtlessly be pressures from both parties to include guest-worker and amnesty provisions. Majority Leader Bill Frist put the whip to committee members earlier this month by threatening to introduce an “enforcement first” bill should they fail to come up with anything today. Not only is Mr. Frist’s proposal better policy, it would also nicely match legislation the House passed in December.
The House bill wisely addresses border security and interior enforcement. It presupposes that economic incentives are the primary motivation both for illegal aliens and their illegal employers in the United States. Thus, it greatly increases the penalties not only on those caught here illegally, but also for employers hiring them. Critics have disingenuously charged that this means anyone who helps an illegal immigrant would be considered a felon. What it does do is substantially increase penalties for those involved in criminal smuggling rings. The legislation also includes building a 700-mile wall along the Mexican border — an expensive but affordable and necessary measure.
Any immigration reform must have as its foundation these enforcement and border-security measures. An amnesty proposal sponsored by Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy barely acknowledges this prerequisite aside from weak promises of future enforcement. This was tried before in 1986 — the last time Congress granted sweeping amnesty — with the rather embarrassing result that the same problems remain with us, now compounded by 20 years of inaction. Unless there are disincentives for an immigrant to remain illegal or an employer to hire one, there’s every reason to assume that most illegals won’t bother signing up for a guest-worker plan or won’t bother leaving after their visa expires.
The McCain-Kennedy bill differs from Sen. Arlen Specter’s on one major issue. Under the McCain-Kennedy proposal, the 11 million or so illegal aliens already in the country would have “a path to citizenship.” This would include a $1,000 fine, as well as having to pay back taxes. The Specter bill offers no such path. Instead, it would allow the 11 million to apply for legal status that falls short of full citizenship, but also includes financial penalties. This is Mr. Specter’s way of avoiding the word “amnesty,” while Messrs. McCain and Kennedy just insist that their bill isn’t amnesty. The penalties alone make it highly improbably that illegals would emerge from the shadows, especially since they face little recourse for remaining illegal.
But so far ignored by members of the committee is the recent GAO report on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency expected to manage a guest-worker program. As the GAO found, CIS “doesn’t have a handle on fraud, doesn’t do enough to deter it, and won’t have a fraud-management system in place until 2011.” It would be unconscionable to ask CIS to monitor Mr. Specter’s unlimited guest-worker program before addressing these problems. It’s also ironic, since Mr. Specter’s allies are constantly complaining how unrealistic it would be to enforce stricter immigration laws.
The other argument often cited is that the U.S. economy depends on cheap, immigrant labor to do the jobs American won’t. A fine line separates “depends on” from “addicted to.” As even the liberal Paul Krugman of the New York Times and the highly esteemed Robert Samuelson of The Washington Post, acknowledge, willingness depends on wages, and right now an illegal will work for far less than an American. Wrote Mr. Samuelson, “poor immigrant workers hurt the wages of unskilled Americans.” The cost companies will have to pay to hire Americans will indeed be passed to the consumer. But if guest-worker proponents were truly concerned about that, we’ll be happy to debate minimum-wage laws.
Economics aside, the bottom line is that at this point it is extremely unlikely the House would approve any bill with a guest-worker program. Amnesty for the estimated 11 million illegals already here is off the table entirely. Enforcement first remains the best, and right now only, way to accomplish anything on immigration reform for the remainder of the congressional session. As a recent Time magazine poll reiterated, Americans favor stricter enforcement above all else. A Quinnipiac poll found that 9-in-10 consider immigration a serious problem. An NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll found that 59 percent oppose allowing illegal aliens to apply for legal or temporary status.
Perhaps when the government proves that it can control the borders, Congress can debate some form of a guest-worker program. Until then, go forward with enforcement first.