- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 8, 2006

With the Congress poised to consider immigration reform legislation, I am reminded of the words of American philosopher George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

We must not repeat the mistakes of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). Immigration reform is no longer simply a matter of national sovereignty. It is a matter of national security. It is important we stop the flow of illegal migration. But in this era of global terrorism, it is absolutely essential we control our borders.

In 1986, I was the U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles, and I saw firsthand how Congress got it wrong in a number of profound ways:

(1) In addition to legalizing several million aliens, Congress promised to add resources to gain control of the border but did not do so. The Border Patrol saw no increase in 1986, or for years thereafter. It is little wonder there is great cynicism among the American public this time around.

Fortunately, the administration and Congress are substantially increasing the number of Border Patrol Agents, up to 18,000. Along with increased manpower, the administration is adding detection technology, capable of detecting and responding to all intrusions, as well as infrastructure, such as vehicle barriers and sensored fencing. With the right combination of agents, technology, infrastructure and improved processing of apprehended aliens, we can gain control of our border.

Using the National Guard is a stopgap measure that can and should be phased out as the Border Patrol gets up to strength.

(2) The 1986 IRCA did not deal with the realities of continued illegal economic migration. No provision was made for continued economic migration. If anything, IRCA led to an increase in illegal migration. The president’s Temporary Worker Program addresses this issue. This program will staunch the flood of people — an average of about 4,000 to 5,000 a day illegally crossing from Mexico — and will help Border Patrol Agents gain control of the border by reducing the flood of illegals from Day One.

(3) IRCA’s system for verifying employees legally entitled to work in the U.S. is rife with fraud. Employers of illegal aliens escape liability by looking at and copying a Social Security card and a green card. You can buy good counterfeit cards for about $60 a few blocks from the Times Mirror building in Los Angeles. Let’s not do this again.

The solution: a biometric verification system similar to US VISIT, which currently takes finger scans of all foreign nationals with visas entering U.S. airports — about 15 million a year-and matches them against a government database to verify they are the person issued the visa and entitled to enter the U.S. American employers could use a biometric verification system to check identity and work authorization against a government database of those issued temporary worker permits. This would dramatically reduce the rampant fraud that currently exists.

(4) IRCA sanctions against employers hiring illegal aliens are too weak. The government must prove employers have knowingly hired illegal aliens twice before the company can be criminally prosecuted, and then, it is only a misdemeanor.

This “three strikes” before prosecution must stop. We should increase criminal fines and administrative penalties for hiring illegal aliens.

Most U.S. businesses want to comply with the law. The key is having a system that achieves deterrence and encourages employers to invest a little to electronically and biometrically identify potential hires, using a US VISIT-type biometric identification, to establish that a person is legally authorized to work in the United States.

To achieve a true deterrent effect, we also need more Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents to investigate the unlawful hiring of aliens. Under IRCA, few additional resources were dedicated to such investigations.

Vastly improved employee verification, strengthened employer sanctions, and adequate resources to achieve deterrence are important to a comprehensive border control strategy. Why? Because they cut the magnet — readily available jobs — that creates the flood, that has led to an out-of-control border. Add 6,000 more Border Patrol Agents and technology to detect all intrusions at our border, and we will control our border. The bonus is that we also dramatically increase our prospects for apprehending terrorists who may try to penetrate our border.

All these steps correct the mistakes of IRCA.

What about the millions of aliens illegally working in the U.S.? They must pay a fine and get a Temporary Worker Permit, with biometric verification. That would reflect the reality that, whether it is wise policy or not, we simply cannot afford to devote the resources to deport them all. As a former prosecutor, I can state categorically that this approach is not “amnesty.” We haven’t criminally prosecuted anyone for illegally entering our country or for illegally residing here in decades. Maybe we should, but we aren’t doing so. The reason is our criminal justice system is already overwhelmed. We must take strong measures to control our border and reduce the flood in order to be able to resuscitate our moribund justice system.

Can we learn from our mistakes? Can we get it right this time? The temperature is rising. Our nation is waiting. Congress must act by passing comprehensive border control and immigration reform legislation, along the lines proposed by President Bush. Our national security depends on it.

Robert C. Bonner is former commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

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