- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 11, 2009

Yes, we need comprehensive immigration reform. But many proponents start with a deeply flawed assumption — that reform must begin with amnesty for virtually everyone unlawfully in the United States.

America’s immigration and border security problems, they argue, can’t be solved without first dealing with the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegally living here. There is no practical or compassionate alternative to just giving them all amnesty, often called legalization, and putting them on the road to citizenship.

This kind of thinking is just flat wrong.

The first problem with the case for an “amnesty first” approach is that it won’t work. In 1986, President Reagan supported similar reforms. At the time, the unlawful population was about 3 million. Now it is more that three times that.

The American experience isn’t unique. Spain experimented with immigration amnesty on at least five occasions. After each attempt, the problem grew.

Amnesty “uber alles” fails for two reasons. First, this approach undermines the rule of law. Allowing individuals to sidestep immigration laws just encourages more illegal border crossing.

Calling amnesty “legalization” doesn’t change the dynamic. Fines and other administrative measures are minor irritants. Most rightly conclude that if the law is waived once, the law will likely be waived again.

The second problem with “amnesty first” is that once the measure is passed, proponents of open borders lose all interest in compromise and kill further efforts to enforce immigration and workplace laws.

The even bigger problem with “amnesty first” is that the American people will never let the law get passed. Immigration reform is not a partisan issue. It does not break down cleanly between liberals and conservatives, Republicans and Democrats. Attitudes on immigration are very much affected by regional, class and ethnic biases. Americans are not of one mind on this issue.

Without political consensus, any amnesty bill is guaranteed to fall victim to political squabbling — the kind that defies compromise. President George W. Bush found that out the hard way when he tried to push a bill through in 2007, and American politics on this problem haven’t changed much since then.

There is another reason why Washington shouldn’t bloody its head again by battering on the amnesty door: There is a practical alternative.

Rather than starting with amnesty, Congress could begin with systemic reforms that would actually address the challenge of managing migration (rather than just emptying the illegal pool, only to watch it fill again). The government could start by creating temporary worker programs that would actually work, that would get employers the employees they need when they need them so that they grow their businesses and the American economy.

The argument that temporary workers displace the work force is false. Jobs grow more jobs. It’s that simple.

Next, the government will have to demonstrate that it can enforce the law and control America’s borders. This is the flip side to creating effective temporary worker programs. Not only does the U.S. have to offer a legitimate alternative to unlawful employment, it has to make the alternative of ignoring the law a less appealing option.

After addressing the systemic problems of migration, creating realistic and compassionate policies to deal with those illegally here becomes a lot more manageable. Start by dividing the illegal population and developing specific strategies for each group.

For example, several million of the illegal immigrants are single and not interested in U.S. citizenship. They would willingly self-deport back to their home countries if they at least had the hope of returning through a legitimate temporary worker program.

Probably 1 million to 2 million are criminals who have committed felonies and probably shouldn’t have been offered amnesty in the first place. They need to be the focus of deportation procedures by the Department of Homeland Security.

And so on. As specific strategies are developed for each group, the glut of those here illegally will shrink to something much more manageable and much less of a burden to our communities, our sovereignty and our civil society.

Besides, comprehensive immigration reform — aka amnesty — is impractical. Not only will it crash and burn in Congress, it will delay serious efforts to give Americans the reforms they really want: improving workplace enforcement and border security while reshaping immigration policies.

Wasting another year on poisonous politics isn’t something the nation can afford. Our borders are threatened by violent transnational gangs and cartels. The more America remains bogged down in immigration debates, the harder it is to focus on the critical challenges of fighting to take our southern border back from these criminals. The more Washington dithers, the longer it will take to turn migration from a liability to an advantage, helping jump-start the economy and grow jobs.

Playing politics with immigration rather than adopting an honest, sensible piecemeal reform program makes no sense. As long as comprehensive-reform zealots continue their crusade, senseless policymaking will be the order of the day. It’s time to send “amnesty first” packing.

James Jay Carafano is a senior research fellow for national security at the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).

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