Winning the Border Battle
December 9, 2004
By Tamar Jacoby
THE immigration wars have started again in Washington, with this round, like the last, pitting mainly Republicans against Republicans: conservative Republicans in the House vs. President George W. Bush. The charge from the right: that when it comes to immigration, the president is soft on enforcement.
The only trouble is it isn't true. The president's plan for a guest-worker program — first proposed in January and, according to the White House, one of its priorities for the coming year — is in no way antithetical to enhanced enforcement. On the contrary, better enforcement is the heart and soul of Bush's package, and his principles are the only path to the tighter, more secure borders we need.
Powerful House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, leading the charge in Congress, used the fight over the 9/11 intelligence bill to send a shot across the White House's bow. Though he lost this round — his provisions were stripped out of the bill — he has vowed to continue the fight in the new Congress. Many of the immigration provisions he is championing — including denying drivers' licenses to illegal immigrants — sound reasonable enough and might make sense if our border policy were functional. But they won't work and will only make things worse unless we fix the system with reforms of the kind the president proposes.
The problem with our current approach and Sensenbrenner's is that both try to deny reality — the inexorable reality of the global marketplace. Our increasingly educated, middle-class workforce isn't interested in hard manual work, but millions of campesinos south of the border are. We need them and they need us — supply and demand — and the resulting flow is good for our economy.
This global market generates a net influx of over a million immigrants a year, but we pretend we can limit it to about two-thirds that number — and the result is an inevitable spillover into our underground economy. The Department of Homeland Security — its immigration enforcement arm and the Border Patrol — tries very hard to control the spillover.
In the past 10 years, we tripled the number of agents on the border, then quintupled their operating budget. But still the migrants keep on coming, and during this decade of tougher and tougher crackdowns, close to 5 million more have entered the country.
Why haven't these crackdowns worked? It's like trying to enforce a 20 mph speed limit on a road where people naturally drive 60 or 65. Not only is that all but sure to fail, but the harder the authorities try, the more frustrated they are likely to become: stopping, ticketing and fining more and more people to little effect — to the point that the "solution" becomes worse than the problem it's intended to solve, and the law enforcement effort collapses of its own weight.
Yet that, more or less, is what Sensenbrenner is recommending. Never mind that the American economy cannot function or grow without the immigrant labor now streaming illegally across our border. Never mind that thanks to our unrealistic quotas, some 8 million to 12 million of these workers and their families already live on the wrong side of the law — criminalized merely for showing up to work and doing jobs we as a nation need them to do.
But Sensenbrenner wants to crack down further, toughening the penalties against these people and making their lives even more difficult: making it harder for them to drive by depriving them of licenses, making it harder for them to travel and use banks by invalidating the identity cards many get from their home governments.
President Bush has a better idea. Yes, let's crack down on immigration violations. Let's tighten up on the border and eliminate the underground economy. But we won't be able to do that — we will have no hope of succeeding no matter what we try — unless we start with a more realistic law. Think of it as a speed limit more in line with the speed people actually drive — or, in this case, immigrant quotas more in line with the size of the flow generated by the global economy.
Once we've adjusted the law — once most needed workers have a way to come legally and the only unauthorized foreigners in the country are people we don't need or want here — many of Sensenbrenner's proposed provisions would make good sense.
Indeed, in that case, we'd want to use every means at our disposal to find and catch those who eluded the guest-worker program or tried to come illegally outside it. And tightening up on drivers' licenses and other I.D. cards would be an extremely effective tool — to use against not just uncooperative migrants but also smugglers and terrorists. (If anything, the battle over the intelligence bill shows just how much we need the Bush immigration reforms in order to isolate would-be terrorists - the few real criminals, to continue the analogy, among the many millions now on the wrong side of the law merely for driving at a reasonable speed.)
Sensenbrenner and others who oppose the Bush proposals have it exactly wrong. More realistic quotas and better enforcement aren't opposites or contradictory ideas. They are two sides of the same coin. We can't have one without the other, and only the two together will allow us to regain control of our borders, enhancing our security and restoring the rule of law in our communities.
Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.
©2004 New York Post
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