Republicans have no shortage of ideas for fixing America’s immigration system and no lack of good will toward those who would come here for opportunity and freedom. What we do need, urgently, is to restore the bonds of trust — between the people and their government, and between the institutions we depend on to maintain the rule of law.
First, the trust of the people in their government. President Obama says he wants Congress to send him a “comprehensive” immigration reform bill. Yet the American people don’t want a “comprehensive” anything. They know what it means: a thousand-page bill no one has read and no one understands, teetering with pet programs and unintended consequences. And Americans recognize that such “comprehensive” legislation is the favored device of technocrats who believe, as Jonathan Gruber said in his now-infamous comments on Obamacare, that a “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage” and the “stupidity of the American voter” is “really, really critical” to passing legislation.
After the experiences of Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and the “stimulus,” the American people don’t trust Congress to write a “comprehensive” bill and they don’t trust the administration to implement it. The president, in using this poisonous cliche, is at least doing us the unintentional favor of being honest about what he wants. And the public is responding with skepticism and opposition.
To fix the immigration system, Congress will have to adopt a process of smaller, understandable bills that addresses this well-deserved mistrust head-on.
Just as important, however, Mr. Obama must also work to restore a second kind of trust — the basic trust among our institutions of government. If the president proceeds with his planned executive amnesty, for instance, it will be very difficult for the new Congress to reach any compromise on immigration. He will have proved to the Congress that it can’t trust him to be constrained by the deal, the law or the Constitution.
If there is to be any hope of passing real reform on immigration, the right approach is not to jam every solution into one bill, but to work on seven or eight small bills, each with a discrete purpose and a broad coalition of supporters. Such a process will enable Congress and the American people to verify that the president is enforcing the laws in good faith before passing the more contentious components of a compromise.
Securing the border has to be the first step and the prerequisite for additional reforms. Any proposal that does not begin with enforcing the law and re-establishing control over who does and does not enter the United States is a nonstarter.
There’s no excuse for the national security and humanitarian disaster that is our southern border. There are 240,000 employees at the Department of Homeland Security. There are 70,000 Homeland Security agents and officers. That’s enough to station 36 officers along every single mile of the U.S.-Mexico border. There are, in addition, about 450,000 Americans serving in the National Guard (about 230 for every mile) who could be sent to the border on a temporary basis.
The president has all the authority he needs to secure the border today, so the first bill Congress should pass is a simple measure giving the president whatever resources he reasonably believes are required to accomplish it. At the same time, Congress should establish objective metrics for verifying when the border is secure.
Once these standards are met, Congress should advance other important reforms in separate, easily understandable bills.
We should fix our visa system to stop sending home highly skilled people who want to stay and contribute to the United States. We should make it easier to deport people who have committed crimes or violated the terms of their visas. We should make English the official language of government so speaking the common language remains part of what it means to be American (since language is an essential part of what ties a nation together).
We should do more to require that every person becoming a U.S. citizen has an appreciation of American history so they understand the country they’re joining. (And, of course, our schools need to do a better job of teaching American history to the citizens who were born here.)
We should design a guest worker program that allows people who want to come here temporarily for work to do so legally, so we know who they are and where they are employed. And we should require employers to verify that everyone they hire is in the country legally, with strong penalties for those who violate the law.
And then we will have to deal with the question of the 12 million people who are in the United States illegally. As I suggested nearly three years ago during my presidential campaign, I believe we will need a policy that takes into account the real human complexities of determining who should go home and who should have the chance to stay. Such decisions may best be made at the community level. I have suggested as one model the Selective Service boards during World War II, which proved effective at making difficult judgments on a case-by-case basis.
We can secure our border and fix our immigration system, but the task will require the American people and their elected representatives to work through complicated choices. If we don’t first restore trust in the process, the solution will be as divisive and destructive as the status quo.
• Newt Gingrich is a former speaker of the House of Representatives and a 2012 Republican candidate for president.