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Merits of a virtual fence

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Even as health care and financial regulation dominate current policy debate, the signs are clear that immigration reform will soon be back at center stage.

The head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat, made that clear when he announced earlier this month - amidst Capitol demonstrations by advocates for legal status for immigrants here illegally - that he would push for such legislation, with few preconditions, for the 12-plus million illegal immigrants in the country.

It's hardly likely that such a so-called "comprehensive" bill would pass, especially during a recession. Yet the fact remains that this is not an issue we can continue to ignore - both because of the presence of so many illegals and because we rely on talented immigrants to fuel our economy. We dare not close our borders to the skilled and ambitious immigrants on whom we historically have relied, as the mayors of London and New York recently emphasized.

Amnesty for illegals won't resolve the debate - but there is reason to be optimistic about successful, bipartisan immigration compromise, thanks to a little-known but game-changing federal program started by the George W. Bush administration and quietly extended by the Obama White House and in keeping with an approach Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, has said he will promote.

The E-Verify program, run by the Department of Homeland Security, holds the promise of meaningful control of the borders by making it impossible to get work without being listed in its national database of those who are citizens or lawful residents. More than 150,000 employers already use it - and, as of September, all federal contractors have to do so. It was used to screen more than 8 million job hires over the past year - and gave employers legal reason to turn away almost 3 percent of applicants. Somewhat surprisingly, its approach - which includes matching Social Security and other identifiers with federal records - has broad support.

Although established as a pilot program by the Bush White House and scheduled to expire at the end of September, E-Verify was kept alive by the Democratic Congress and then included in a three-year homeland security reauthorization, which cleared a House-Senate appropriations committee last week and which President Obama is expected to sign.

Its implications are powerful: As the program grows, it can serve as a powerful disincentive to new illegal immigration. It will make it practical to hold employers responsible for hiring only legal residents (this makes some business groups uneasy) and serve, too, as a deterrent to new illegal immigration once the word gets out that, without legal status, one won't be able to get a job.

What might be thought of as a virtual border fence holds the potential for powerful policy effects as well. It theoretically would be possible, for instance, to use the system - were it made mandatory - to forge an "attrition by enforcement" policy, to gradually force all illegals out of the country simply by denying them the chance to earn a living. Such a policy would risk public backlash, however; an estimated three-quarters of illegals, after all, have children born in this country who hold citizenship and who rely on them.

But E-Verify also can serve as the foundation of a grand immigration compromise, one that combines a deterrent to future illegal immigration (by extending the system and making it mandatory); gradual legalization, with conditions, for those illegals already here; and the prospect of border control that can let us give preference to high-skilled immigrants from around the world eager to work in the United States rather than having our new immigration overwhelmingly dominated (as it now is) by those from Mexico and Central America.

An approach along those lines has been proposed by a bipartisan group called the Immigration Policy Roundtable, convened by the Brookings Institution and the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University but including a range of members from left to right (including this writer). It would, on what has been considered the liberal side, establish a "path to citizenship" for illegals - but only after the Government Accountability Office certified that an effective E-Verify system was widely up and running.

Even still, legalization would come with serious conditions - including a fine, demonstrated knowledge of English, steady employment, payment of taxes and even "good moral character" (no criminal convictions, for instance).

Using E-Verify to cut the Gordian policy knot based in the presence of so many illegals - and the prospect of so many more - sets the table for other key changes that would benefit the American economy - including favoring skilled immigrants over the entry of members of the extended families of current immigrants. Liberals would have to accept limiting family "reunification" to nuclear-family members only - and be willing to accept that E-Verify may not be perfectly accurate. (The program allows for appeals if one is denied the right to work.)

This is the sort of compromise that deserves serious consideration. As much as we've focused on low-skilled newcomers, we must not overlook the fact that successful global economies rely on the talents of energetic newcomers, who have been deterred by our recent immigration arguments. The promise of real immigration enforcement - through a technologically up-to-date system - can allow us to put our policy paralysis behind us.

Howard Husock is vice-president for policy research at the Manhattan Institute. He was a member of the Brookings-Duke Immigration Policy Roundtable.

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