- - Monday, April 8, 2013

In reading news accounts, it seems obvious that the White House and the so-called “Gangs of Eight” in both the Senate and House are far down the path of proposing some form of amnesty for illegal immigrants. While I share concerns about the issue and the impact that it has on our federal budget, national security and legal immigrant population, I am puzzled about what the plans reportedly represent. I am troubled by any plan that offers amnesty without first addressing the root causes of illegal immigration — an insecure border and a lack of enforcement in the nation’s interior.

In a letter to my House colleagues who are members of the Gang of Eight, I described my long history with this issue and how it has given me a unique perspective on the real-world impact of illegal immigration. As the mayor of Hazleton, Pa., I dealt with the consequences of a broken immigration system when our city’s population nearly doubled and our tax base stayed the same. This fiscal predicament has led me to spend a large portion of my public life trying to fix our country’s immigration failures.

I have no doubt that their motivations are well-intended and their promises made in good faith, but if the immigration “reform” of 1986 taught us anything, it is that the litany of promises associated with granting amnesty is simply not backed up by a system capable of keeping those pledges.

The claims are that the proposals preclude amnesty recipients from benefiting from a variety of federal programs, such as Social Security payments, food stamps and welfare. Since no proven mechanisms to enforce these promises currently exist, one is left to conclude that many of these new residents will, in fact, require public assistance. The Heritage Foundation projects that the costs of extending public benefits to these newly-legalized immigrants will approach $2.6 trillion over the next 20 years, even after the new residents pay taxes.

In 1986, the American people were told that 1.5 million illegal immigrants would be granted amnesty. The reality was that it doubled to 3 million largely because a national declaration of pending amnesty triggers a rush of new illegal immigrants trying to beat the clock. Given that precedent, we should anticipate that most estimates regarding the cost to taxpayers are low.

Further, it is concerning that few are talking about the impact on legal immigrants. Granting legal status to millions of illegal immigrants is grossly unfair to those who were patient and followed the law. The increased competition for employment in this weak job market will leave many law-abiding people out in the cold.

Approximately 40 percent of illegal aliens currently in the country are here as a result of expired visas, a situation presenting a serious national security threat. As an example, we can point to one man responsible for the World Trade Center bombing of 1993. Mahmud Abouhalima overstayed a tourist visa and was in the country illegally. He received amnesty in 1986 by falsely claiming to be a seasonal agricultural worker — even though he was a cab driver.

When it comes to border security, we must think beyond the conventional borders — northern, southern and coastal. In Hazleton, it is estimated that 10 percent of our population is in the country illegally, yet my town is about 2,000 miles away from the nearest southern border. Many of the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country got here through airports, be it in El Paso or Philadelphia. If you live near an international airport, you effectively live in a border state.

I recently took part in a House committee hearing, during which I asked a number of questions regarding this very issue. Most notable was the lack of ability of anyone to explain what a secure border would look like or how we would enforce it. This is an alarming dereliction of our duty as a nation to protect our national security and American jobs.

All of this prompts contemplation of broad changes in the enforcement of illegal immigration, including enhanced border-security efforts, more vigorous pursuance of visa expirations, interior port security, and the protection and support of federal and local law enforcement authorities on immigration issues. Before we address illegal immigration in an overarching fashion, any talk of amnesty is a failure of leadership and responsibility.

Rep. Lou Barletta is a Pennsylvania Republican.