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CARAFANO AND ZUCKERMAN: Decision time for immigration reform

Empty promises will perpetuate the problem

- - Thursday, July 11, 2013

This summer, if the House doesn't rush through a bill to conference with the Senate, Americans will discover that the latter passed two "comprehensive" immigration reform bills, not one.

The first is the bill the Gang of Eight, the senators who crafted the original legislative proposal, talk about. This is the bill that solves all the problems. It brings every person unlawfully present out of the shadows. This law turns the southern border into the Maginot Line. It dumps dollars into the public coffers rather than emptying Washington's account. It gets employers the employees they need when they need them to grow jobs and grow the economy. It rights injustice. It is fair and balanced. It is all things to all people.

The second is the one the Senate actually passed. It commits all the errors of the 1986 immigration-reform law, which promised to fix all our problems and failed. It contains all the flaws, and more, of the proposed 2007 reform bill that Congress rejected.

The great strength of the Gang of Eight has been how they talk about their bill. They went to school on all the criticisms leveled against the aborted 2007 measure. They have read the polls and know how to address concerns about border security and amnesty in a manner that seems reassuring to all Americans.

On the other hand, to get the bill through the Senate, they crafted a "give something to everybody" law that has zero chance of delivering on the grandiose promises that have been made.

For starters, the bill they talk about promises to "secure the border first." The real bill violates that promise on Day One after the law is signed. Within six months, those who are unlawfully present will start to get legal status.

That will be an incentive for others to follow and destroy the credibility of U.S. immigration laws (which is what happened after the 1986 was passed). Meanwhile, it will be years before all the security measures promised are put in place — if they ever are.

Further, the American people will have to rely on a government that has already declared "the border has never been more secure." That would be the same administration that has not even spent all the money Congress has already allocated for border security. It is also the same government that has killed useful immigration programs, suspended the implementation of immigration laws, and indifferently combats the transnational crime wave on our southern border.

Next, the bill they talk about grows the economy. The bill they wrote blows through the spending caps enacted under the Budget Control Act of 2011. It throws money at the border without regard to whether the spending is smart and efficient. The real bill obligates the federal government to trillions of dollars in federal welfare and entitlement spending.

The bill they talk about improves the legal immigration system. The bill they wrote won't fix the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the troubled agency that oversees the system. It gives the government more power to pick winners and losers. The bill they wrote does little to strengthen the enforcement of workplace and immigration laws.

Finally, the bill they talk about is the bill that is too big to fail, the legislation that Washington has to pass to solve all our problems. The truth of the matter is, Congress doesn't have to pass a comprehensive immigration and border-security reform bill to fix the problem. With few exceptions, there are enough laws on the books and government mandates already.

Furthermore, Congress can appropriate funds to do these activities through the regular order of legislation. Where Congress might want to tweak the system, such as in establishing new temporary-worker programs to better fill niche needs in the economy, it can write narrow, targeted laws.

The right way forward would be a piece-by-piece legislative approach, where Congress focused on solving problems with solutions all sides agree on, in narrow, understandable bills crafted transparently through the regular order of business. They would write responsible bills that respect the rule of law, demonstrate fiscal discipline and solve rather than hide problems.

Instead, the Senate bill has become the immigration version of Obamacare — a bloated, convoluted document that disguises its deep flaws in hundreds of pages of impenetrable text and lots of supercool talking points.

If this bill becomes law, it will produce results like Obamacare. Rather than solving a big problem and putting it behind us, it will create a bigger problem and in a few years, Congress will back in town asking: How could this have happened, and how do we fix it now?

James Jay Carafano is vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the Heritage Foundation, where Jessica Zuckerman is a foreign-policy analyst.