- - Monday, July 1, 2013

We are a nation of immigrants. We are also a nation of laws.

The Senate immigration bill ignores the problems with our immigration policy and focuses instead on fixing a symptom of the problem — the illegal immigrants currently living in the United States. The legislation would offer a pathway to citizenship for the millions of immigrants currently living in the U.S. who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visa. It’s the most radical amnesty proposal in our country’s history. Millions of immigrants will jump to the front of the line to become permanent residents, and millions more will cross our borders illegally. Euphemisms such as “pathway to citizenship” or “comprehensive reform” obscure its true nature. Amnesty is amnesty, and it’s bad policy.

We’ve tried this before, and we must learn from the mistakes of our past.

In 1979, President Carter appointed the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh to serve as chairman of a blue-ribbon select commission on immigration reform. Father Hesburgh prophetically warned that “without more effective enforcement than the U.S. has had in the past, legalization could serve as a stimulus to further illegal entry.”

Congress ignored Father Hesburgh, and in 1986 passed the Simpson-Mazzoli Act, which gave amnesty to the 3 million illegal immigrants. This bill, too, promised border security. Today, however, we have somewhere between 10 million and 20 million illegal immigrants, and we’re still waiting for adequate border security.

Currently, it takes up to 25 years to obtain U.S. citizenship legally. The Senate proposal, however, would allow immigrants who came to the United States illegally to obtain citizenship in just 13 years. That’s a 12-year head start granted as a reward for illegally entering the country. That isn’t compassion. It’s just unfair to law-abiding individuals seeking to enter our country legally.

The consequences of the unfairness are dire. Extending amnesty to those who came here illegally or overstayed their visas dissuades people from joining the nearly 4.5 million would-be Americans who are following the rules. This creates economic problems, national security concerns and a human rights crisis as immigrants risk death crossing into America.

The Senate bill would fundamentally close the door on legal immigration.

The Corker-Hoeven so-called “border surge” amendment is commendable in that it recognizes the need for a border fence and enhanced border security. This action, though, must first be tackled independently of all other aspects of immigration reform. Only after stemming the flow of illegal immigrants into our country through stricter employee verification and enhanced border security can an honest discussion on citizenship begin.

The Senate bill is a 1,200-page boondoggle that has waivers and exemptions like those in Obamacare, giving Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet A. Napolitano broad discretion to “waive the rules.” We’ve seen how this administration has abused its waiver authority with health care, and immigration will be no different.

The House Judiciary Committee has recognized the need for immigration reform and has begun its measured approach — tackling immigration one issue at a time. It won’t be flashy — no big headlines, grandstanding or party leaders marching in the streets of Washington with an oversized gavel. But it will fix the problem in a responsible way.

It is a mistake to primarily focus immigration reform on the illegal immigrants currently in the country. We need a legal system of immigration that meets the country’s economic needs. That means a temporary-worker program with flexibility based on economic need — and exit controls to ensure that workers return home. It also means a system that allows for sufficient visas for highly skilled and technical workers, so American businesses have access to the talent they need to stay competitive. Finally, smart immigration reform requires increased border security and tough sanctions for employers who hire undocumented workers.

The goal of any reform has to be to address these economic needs and reduce the incentives and opportunities to enter the country illegally. The Senate proposal doesn’t do this. In fact, by giving illegal immigrants a head start toward citizenship, it does the exact opposite. The millions of undocumented workers currently living in this country are a symptom of our bad immigration policies. By treating the symptom, the Senate bill will only compound the actual problem.

Fairness, equal opportunity and justice are American principles, but this proposal is blatantly unfair. Instead of holding those accountable who have broken our laws, either by entering our country illegally or overstaying their welcome, they will be rewarded with benefits paid for by American taxpayers. American seniors should be concerned. Giving illegal immigrants legal status and allowing them into the entitlement pool would further strain our social safety net, including Medicare.

Congress should not look for a short-term plan. We need policies that are best for America in the long run. We need immigration reform that actually fixes the problems we’re facing. The Senate bill does not do this.

Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. is a Wisconsin Republican.

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