President Obama is expected to call for “comprehensive” immigration reform in his State of the Union address. He will undoubtedly claim he wants to solve all the problems of immigration — border security, enforcement, and the like. But beware: His real agenda will be to find a way to force Congress to accept amnesty for as many illegal immigrants as possible.
The reason is politics. Mr. Obama knows that amnesty excites his base. The 78 percent of the Hispanic vote he received focuses the mind of Democrats on potential new voters. Mr. Obama was criticized in his last term for not addressing immigration. Now, with refreshed political capital from the election, he’s ready to make amends.
Mr. Obama also knows amnesty could potentially divide Republicans. Many in the GOP are deeply worried about losing the Hispanic vote, and Mr. Obama likely thinks some of them could be picked off in a promised grand bargain. That is not likely to happen. Democrats are not serious about real reforms.
Immigration has many moving parts that need to be fixed. As my colleagues Matt Spalding, Jessica Zuckerman and James Carafano argue in a forthcoming Heritage Foundation report, it cannot be solved in a single “comprehensive” bill. The problems are too varied. We need a pragmatic, problem-solving approach, not some back-room political deal that is likely to make matters worse.
We need to gain operational control of our borders. We could build actual fences in places where they work. Where they don’t, virtual barriers could be erected by using unmanned aerial vehicles and cameras and sensors to enhance monitoring and detection. We can also do a better job of working with the Mexicans, through the Border Enforcement Security Task Force and the Merida Initiative, for example.
Another piece of the puzzle is law enforcement at home. The use of illegal labor here is a huge draw for illegal immigrants, and discouraging it requires telling American employers that there will be consequences for hiring illegal immigrants. All sorts of tools exist to do this, including Social Security No Match, random workplace inspections, E-Verify and checks of I-9 forms. They should be strengthened.
Yet another step is to make immigration responsive to the needs of the economy. America actually needs foreign labor. A temporary worker program could supply a rotating, temporary foreign workforce, depending on the demands of the economy. This not only makes economic sense; it would channel foreign workers into a legal system, discouraging them from taking an illegal route.
We should also make legal immigration easier. America needs immigrants; the issue is not how to stop immigration, but rather how to make it legal and responsive to the needs of Americans. The inefficiencies of the bureaucratic system that manages immigration today are a major reason why we have so many illegal immigrants in the first place. It’s why the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services should be reformed.
Then there is the thorny issue of what to do about illegal immigrants already living here. Whatever we do, we must not penalize legal immigrants who did the right thing. Not only is the rule of law at stake, but so, too, is basic fairness.
The child of a Mexican mother who went through the process legally suffers when another child of a mother who entered illegally receives special treatment. It is simply unfair. Whatever is done, compassion for that child and for the mother who followed the law should not be forgotten.
A pragmatic, step-by-step approach is needed to solve the whole problem of immigration. We don’t need a proposal that claims to be “comprehensive” but in reality is merely politics as usual.
• Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state, is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org). Follow him on Twitter @kimsmithholmes.
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