Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Senate Republicans’ new point man on immigration said that it is unrealistic to assume that the 10 million illegal aliens in the United States can be deported and that the only alternative is to create a temporary worker program that has them come forward on their own.

Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s immigration subcommittee, also said he thinks new temporary workers from overseas must return home after their work visa ends, but he is skeptical about how successful it would be to have illegal aliens return home before applying for the program in the first place.

“A program that told people you’d have to leave to go apply for it would be viewed as sufficiently punitive that people would say, ‘Look, I’ll just take my chances under the status quo,’ which to me is not good,” Mr. Cornyn told The Washington Times in a recent interview in his office in the Senate Hart Office Building.

The 53-year-old former Texas attorney general and state Supreme Court justice comes to the immigration subcommittee after having led the Constitution subcommittee last Congress.

As a senator from Texas, he has been involved in the immigration issue since he was elected in 2002, including sponsoring his own temporary-worker bill in 2003.

He plans to hold a series of hearings, beginning with border security and document fraud issues, but hopes eventually to put together a broad package of immigration reforms.

His earlier bill would have created both seasonal and nonseasonal systems and be open both to illegal immigrants already here and foreign workers from overseas.

The nonseasonal visas would last for 12 months and be renewable for up to 36 months, during which time the government would store part of their wages, which would be paid to the worker when he completes his agreement by returning home.

“The goal of my proposal, which is really unlike any others I know of, would be to get people to return to their country of origin,” he said.

Asked whether the policy should aim toward deportation of those now here illegally, Mr. Cornyn did not answer directly.

“I think one of the goals ought to be to identify them, and first to determine who is a threat to America and who is not. As a factual matter, I don’t believe we will ever be able, under current circumstances, to identify them without their willingness to come forward and to self-identify,” he said, adding that he thinks that a temporary-worker program would do that.

But for those now here illegally, he said, that remains to be worked out.

“The question is what about people who are here, have been here for 20 years, who have American children born in this country, who maybe have American spouses, and of course, we’re going to need to work our way through that based on current law,” he said.

“In some respects, the closest analogy I can think of is Prohibition ” Prohibition was passed, it was a law that did not enjoy the support of the masses, so people found a way to get around it by making gin in a bathtub or whatever, and so then we repealed that law and said ‘OK, the best way to handle this is not to prohibit it but to regulate it,’ ” he said. “That seems to have worked reasonably well when it comes to alcohol consumption.”

As a Texan, Mr. Cornyn said he opposes both stationing U.S. military forces on the U.S.-Mexico border or trying to build a secure fence along it.

“I know there would be a hue and cry from my constituents in South Texas and the Rio Grande Valley if you talked about militarizing the border or building a wall because it would essentially destroy the economy, because trade and lawful commerce would be much too hard to do,” he said.

Mr. Cornyn said he also thought neither approach was feasible.

Some in Congress oppose any type of guest-worker program, arguing that Americans would fill those jobs if illegal workers weren’t available to depress wages.

But Mr. Cornyn said he thinks there are jobs out there that no American would fill because much of it is “hard, backbreaking manual labor that a lot of Americans are not interested in performing.”

The House last week took the first step on the immigration issue this year, passing an immigration and border security bill that cracks down on illegal aliens’ ability to get driver’s licenses, restricts asylum claims, eases rules for deportation of those linked to terrorism and lifts a blockade based on environmental concerns that is preventing completion of a section of U.S.-Mexico border fence near San Diego.

Mr. Cornyn said he supports the driver’s license provisions and making the rules for deportation the same as for excluding someone from entry, but said he has “some questions about the wall issue.”

House leaders have promised to attach their bill to the emergency spending request that President Bush sent to Congress on Monday, and Mr. Cornyn said he “could probably live with it” but is concerned that it might open up the broader thorny issues of immigration reform.

“I’m not sure whether other people will show restraint if we start attaching other things to it that are immigration related,” he said.

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