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FEULNER: Getting immigration right

A step-by-step plan more effective than a catch-all bill

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A bipartisan effort is under way to overhaul the nation's immigration system, improve border security and provide a path to citizenship for those here illegally. Stop me if you've heard this one before.

Those of us who have been in Washington for a while certainly have. The plan announced recently by a group of senators dubbed the "Gang of Eight" may be touted as a new and novel approach. But it sounds eerily familiar to the one enacted in 1986.

At that time, greater border security and better enforcement of our laws governing immigration was promised in exchange for granting citizenship to illegal immigrants.

The 1986 law called for ramped-up enforcement of immigration laws and pledged better control of the flow of those here illegally. In return, the nearly 3 million illegal immigrants present in the country at the time received amnesty.

It didn't quite work out that way, however. While the citizenship part came through all right, the security and enforcement part failed to materialize. Today, there are more than 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.

It's a familiar tactic. On budget deals, for example, politicians will be assured they'll make deep, dramatic cuts in spending if only they'll agree to tax hikes. They take the bait, the deal passes -- and only the tax hikes come through.

It's time for conservatives to stop playing Charlie Brown to the left's Lucy, who -- despite her rosy promises -- keeps pulling the football away.

Does that mean do nothing on immigration? Far from it. Immigration reform is long overdue. We need to get smart about it.

Now is the perfect time to do it, when there's no actual legislation on the table. The Gang of Eight plan, after all, isn't a bill. It's a set of four general principles that almost can't help but lead to the same kind of deal that was crafted in '86.

Take the fourth one: "Establish an improved process for admitting future workers to serve our nation's work force needs, while simultaneously protecting all workers." That's the kind of line that may work well in a speech, but the devil's in the details. What actual solutions would result from that?

We don't need any more "comprehensive" approaches that result in bills so long no lawmaker actually reads them. Fixing our immigration system requires a more thoughtful, step-by-step process, one that tackles each problem in turn.

Among the steps Congress should take:

* Enhance border security efforts. By using technologies such as unmanned aerial vehicles and sophisticated cameras and sensors, the U.S. Border Patrol can better monitor the border and halt illegal crossings.

* Take the needs of the economy into account. We need a targeted temporary worker program that would respond to market and workplace demands, and supply a rotating, temporary workforce.

* Reinvigorate interior enforcement measures. This means measures and programs such as Social Security No-Match, random workplace inspections, checks of I-9 forms and E-Verify. These help to discourage the use of illegal labor. They also send the message that we take the enforcement of immigration laws seriously.

* Establish fair, compassionate and practical solutions for unlawfully present populations. "The circumstances of populations that remain unlawfully present in the U.S. are varied," Heritage Foundation immigration expert Jessica Zuckerman writes. "Congress should examine these groups and propose responsible solutions. It should not, however, repeat the mistakes of the past."

When it comes to immigration, we need a system that welcomes immigrants, protects our sovereignty, encourages assimilation and expands opportunities for everyone. It will take time and effort to make sure that happens. A huge, catch-all bill won't do the job.

In fact, as we've seen from past "comprehensive" efforts, it can make it worse. It's time to slow down -- and get it right.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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