- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 20, 2005

This week President Bush will meet with Mexican President Vicente Fox to discuss a number of thorny issues, primary among them: immigration and border control policy.

George W. Bush has long been supported a pro-growth, pro-freedom immigration strategy and clearly sees immigrants as assets to the United States. On this issue, his world vision collides with the Republican Party’s more nativist faction, which would drape a “No Admittance” sign over the Statue of Liberty.

On the economics of immigration, Mr. Bush is more right than his critics. Whether skilled scientists and engineers in Silicon Valley or the migrant laborers who work in the sweaty fields of the Southwest picking fruits and vegetables, immigrants are the backbone of the American economy.

Immigrants fill vital niches in our labor force; they are mostly hard workers who have come in search of a better life and economic opportunity. Agricultural workers from Central America put food on our table. This is work migrant workers from Mexico and other nations to our south have done here for 100 years and they will do for at least the next generation. The only issue: Will they come lawfully or have to sneak over the border illegally to do jobs that interests few Americans?

Contrary to popular belief, a new study by the National Foundation for American Policy finds the foreign-born pay their fair share of taxes. According to the study’s author, Stuart Anderson, immigrants make enormous net positive contributions to the Social Security system through the payroll taxes they pay each year. The Social Security actuaries report if it were not for immigration, the unfunded liability in Social Security would be about $1 trillion higher over the next 40 years. Without immigration, the fiscal woes of Social Security would rise from $10 trillion to $11 trillion.

Most Americans and most members of Congress say they support legal immigration but are offended by illegal immigration. President Bush’s plan would create a guest worker program so migrant workers, coming to do work immigrants have done for decades, can get a temporary green card if they can arrange employment here.

The plan efficiently matches workers with employers. The guest workers would enter the country legally and in a regulated way, thus freeing our border patrol to concentrate on keeping out terrorists, criminals and other undesirables.

The plan would also force employers to pay fair wages and provide decent working conditions for the foreign workers. U.S. employers who play by the rules would no longer be undercut by rival businesses that take advantage of illegal immigrants and pay insultingly low wages.

A more controversial feature of the Bush plan is legalize immigrant workers here illegally. Opponents like Rep. Tom Tancredo, Colorado Republican, say this will be an “amnesty” and will only encourage greater floods of illegal aliens. One middle position would be for illegal migrants who have an employer willing sponsor them and vouch for their character, is for the foreign workers to go back to their native country and apply for an expedited readmittance. These workers would have to document they collected no welfare while in the U.S. and have committed no crimes. This would seem a “compassionate conservative” way to legalize hundreds of thousands who have been contributing and are already de facto Americans.

We also need to beef up the border patrol and take tougher steps to penalize illegal immigrants in the future. One possible deterrent would be financial penalties imposed on illegal aliens who are caught, penalties steeply increased every time they are again apprehended. This would reduce the attraction for foreigners to come here illegally.

Under current procedures, apprehended illegal immigrants are sent home with relative impunity. It makes no sense for states to provide drivers licenses to illegal immigrants or to offer special benefits, such as in-state tuition for college.

Will foreigners snatch jobs from American citizens? Immigrant workers mean more competition for jobs in some industries. But our dynamic American economy has absorbed more immigrants over the last 20 years than any other nation. Yet we have virtually the lowest unemployment and the highest wages. The U.S. economy has exploded since 1980, creating more than $15 trillion of new wealth, and this era of unprecedented prosperity has occurred amid relatively high immigration. This doesn’t mean the immigrants caused the prosperity, but it indicates good times and low unemployment are not incompatible with a generous immigration policy.

I recall a recent fact-finding trip to the border when I spoke with a newly arrived 20-year-old immigrant from Mexico who told me in Spanish: “What is all this talk about no jobs in America? I have been here four weeks and I already have three jobs.” We need more of that motivation and enterprise here.

There’s a memorable New Yorker cartoon of two Indians peering out of the bushes as the Mayflower lands. The one turns to the other and says: “Looks like we’re going to need an immigration policy.” President Bush has proposed a plan that will bring order and sensibility and safety to our border.

Opposing such a plan that preserves our rich tradition as a nation of immigrants, seems… well, downright un-American.

Stephen Moore is president of the Free Enterprise Fund and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

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