Wednesday, April 26, 2006

It happened last week, and it was nicely timed. One week later — about now, in fact — the U.S. Senate was to reconvene to discuss an immigration bill. The bill proposes to amnesty most of the 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and to admit millions more legally as guest-workers. It is a controversial measure, strongly promoted by the White House and both party leaderships in the Senate but opposed by most Republican congressmen and a large majority of voters. Something was needed to break the log jam of opposition.

President Bush was scheduled to speak in favor of the legislation yesterday while on his California trip. Given his most recent poll figures (33 percent approval rate and falling), however, a presidential speech might not be enough to turn the tide. Action was needed — tough, forceful and popular action — or at least the appearance thereof.

So a week ago yesterday, federal agents “swooped” on plants in 26 states belonging to IFCO, a U.S. subsidiary of a Dutch company supplying wood pallets and plastic containers to industry, and arrested 1,187 illegal immigrant workers. Seven former and current IFCO managers were also charged with employing illegal aliens.

Next day — last Thursday — Homeland Security czar Michael Chertoff addressed a press conference to stress such tough enforcement of immigration law, internally as well as at the border, would now be the rule. Having established its willingness to crack down on illegality, the administration’s political machine crossed its fingers and hoped this display would now help passage of the “Not an Amnesty” law.

All this was not only timely; it was powerfully symbolic. What it symbolized, however, was not the tough enforcement of immigration law but its colander-like leaky ineffectiveness.

For even before Mr. Chertoff had spoken (but not before the shrewd blogger, Michelle Malkin, had predicted it), four-fifths of the illegals arrested had been released; 275 of them were deported. The rest were sent away in return for a promise to return for a court hearing. Many, probably most, will now disappear. And since the government’s computers were “down” at the time, their brush with immigration enforcement may not even be officially recorded. They are home dry — well, dry anyway.

How long has this been going on? In a recent column I suggested — wrongly, my apologies — there had been little or no enforcement of employer sanctions since the 1986 amnesty law was passed. All enforcement had been at the border, rather than internally throughout the U.S. Once an illegal reached a major city such as Los Angeles, Phoenix or Chicago, he was safe from official interest and could work unmolested.

That was not quite accurate. President Clinton had been nervous of immigration as a political issue since he had lost the governorship of Arkansas following the “Mariel” incident. He blamed his defeat on a voter backlash to Fidel Castro’s emptying the Cuban jails onto a ship headed for Florida and to the sanctuary of the U.S. He was cautious thereafter. “Internal” enforcement of employer sanctions under Mr. Clinton was patchy but not wholly lax.

For instance, in the years 1995, 1996 and 1997, there were between 10,000 and 18,000 work-site arrests of illegals annually. In the same years about 1,000 employers were served notices of fines for employing them. Under the Bush administration, work-site arrests fell to 159 in 2004 when there was also the princely total of three notices of intent to fine served on employers.

Three. (My apologies again, incidentally. I had erroneously cited the figure of “four” such notices in my recent column. )

As my old National Review colleague, Ed Rubenstein, writing on the Web site, points out, these figures show work-site arrests under President Bush have fallen from Clintonian levels by something like 97 percent — even though the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, occurred in the meantime.

This dramatic relaxation of internal enforcement explains the rapidly rising estimate of immigrants living and working illegally in the U.S. In the last year, it has risen by more than a million. For if people know they are likely to be safe from enforcement once they escape the border area and reach Los Angeles or Chicago, they will keep trying even if caught and returned to their country of origin any number of times.

Porous borders are not only the cause of uncontrolled immigration; they are its result. You cannot control the borders, however many patrols you hire or fences you build, if you grant an effective pardon to anyone who gets 100 miles inland. It’s as simple as that.

Some supporters of the “Not an Amnesty” bill cite this history as a reason for Congress to allow all or almost all of the estimated 12 million illegals to remain in the U.S. We cannot deport them, they say, since the U.S. has no stomach for workplace raids and mass deportations. It would not tolerate the removal of millions of people.

That argument sits oddly alongside two facts. First, Bush administration officials just rounded up 1,187 illegals precisely because they thought it would be a popular move and thus likely to smooth the path of an unpopular amnesty law. Second, the U.S. currently deports (or insists on the “voluntary departure” of) about 1.2 million people annually.

Most of these are people apprehended and returned at the border. But about 100,000 illegal immigrants are removed from the interior of the U.S. every year. And most Americans support this law enforcement rather than regarding it as a policy of “Gestapo” tactics.

If the law were enforced more uniformly — rather than with the current 159 work-site raids and three employer fines — the number of people deported would rise substantially even if, as last Thursday, only one-fifth of those detained were eventually sent back over the border. That would send a message to those considering illegal entry into the U.S. that they could no longer depend on legal immunity and secure employment once inside America . Those illegals already here, finding their opportunities drying up, would have an incentive to return home legally even if only to increase their chances of legal immigration later. These changes would occur gradually, allowing businesses to adapt to the tighter labor market. And the border would, seemingly by magic, become less porous as interior law enforcement reduced the incentive to cross it.

This is called “the attrition strategy” by Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. It is far more practical than either an amnesty or a guest-worker program. And it requires neither legislation nor official game-playing to implement it.

By contrast, every time the unpopular Bush-Senate “compromise” bill meets an obstacle, Karl Rove will have to pick up a telephone and utter the famous line from “Casablanca”: “Round up the usual suspects.”

John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of the National Review and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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