President Bush yesterday put forward a sweeping immigration reform plan that would grant legal status and jobs to millions of illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. This is a bad idea, which we judge will not have sufficient support to be enacted into law by a Republican Congress.
The administration estimates that 8 million illegals, half of them from Mexico, are currently in the country. Other estimates put the number closer to 14 million. All of them would receive temporary legal status in the country for three years — renewable for an indeterminate number of times — so long as they can prove they are employed. Once they are “legalized,” these immigrants would be free to bring family members to this country and travel back and forth between the United States and their country of citizenship. The plan will offer an unspecified increase in the number of green cards — legal documents that permit foreigners to reside permanently in the United States and to apply for citizenship after five years.
It’s striking that, even though the United States is at war, the administration has said little about what effect such a mass legalization would have on U.S. efforts to keep out terrorists. Instead, the White House has focused its case on what it believes to be the economic benefit from mass legalization and the problems posed by the status quo: millions of people working in the country illegally, exploited by unscrupulous employers and landlords, and often driving while uninsured or underinsured. But these problems will not be resolved so long as this country’s southern border remains wide open, and illegals from Mexico, El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America are able to try again and again to sneak into the United States — until, finally, they succeed.
The administration says that, to prevent this from happening, it will take steps to better control U.S. borders, and there will be stricter enforcement of immigration laws on workers and employers. These are laudable statements of intent, and we applaud the president for saying he will make a serious effort to grapple with this difficult and complex problem. But we’ll reserve judgment in this area until we see how much money Congress and the administration appropriate for these purposes, and how vigorous the enforcement efforts actually turn out to be.
Unfortunately, what is known about this plan suggests that the minuses of the proposal vastly outweigh the pluses. It sets an example that will encourage those weighing whether to come to the United States and live here illegally to believe that they, too, can succeed in this endeavor. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, accurately describes the Bush plan as “a two-step amnesty.”
“It’s not what folks on the left want, which is a quick green card, but it is an amnesty nonetheless,” Mr. Krikorian tells this newspaper. “It legalizes illegal immigrants and is going to increase the number of green cards so that people will be able to move through the system faster.”
Mr. Krikorian raises a number of serious questions about one of the central tenets of the argument for permitting illegals to stay in this country: that they do jobs that Americans won’t do. Writing in National Review Online, he makes a persuasive case that mass immigration is stifling innovation in several sectors of the economy, such as the harvesting of fresh fruit and vegetables and the apparel industry.
The administration and other Republicans argue that, by supporting this program, Republican candidates will make greater headway in attracting Hispanics to support Republican candidates. Polling data is murky on this point. Moreover, the October recall election in California suggests that the opposite may be true: In California, a heavily Democratic state, two Republican candidates, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom McClintock, won 62 percent of the vote. Both were sharply critical of incumbent Democrat Gray Davis for signing legislation granting drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. The two Republicans won approximately 39 percent of the Hispanic vote between them; Republicans usually win around 25 to 30 percent of the vote in statewide races.
The electoral benefit, even if there is one, should be irrelevant. The high cost to the nation of such a wrongheaded statute is far too high to justify such expedient calculations.