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Border Battles

by Tamar Jacoby

This article originally appeared in the New York Post on October 24, 2005.

Even as conservatives continued to snipe at the Harriet Miers nomination, last week President Bush picked another fight with the right wing of his party by insisting that getting a grip on illegal immigration will take more than simply enforcing current law.

In this case, though, Bush has the better of the argument and he also appears to have the votes on his side.

Existing immigration policy is a disaster: hypocritical and ineffective.

The law sounds tough. The only problem is it's so tough that it's unrealistic and as a result, millions of people, immigrants and native-born alike, end up ignoring or subverting it.

Employers who can't find either American workers or the foreign workers they need to keep their businesses running learn not to ask too many questions about whether an employee's ID is fake. Hard-working immigrants are forced to live on the wrong side of the law, on the run and vulnerable to unscrupulous employers.

No wonder the immigration service overwhelmed and underfunded is demoralized. It's a classic nudge-nudge wink-wink situation: a law so unrealistically strict that we might as well have no law at all.

Bush wants to fix this by moving ahead in coming months to pass the reforms he announced two years ago enhanced enforcement, plus a guest-worker program (to give employers a legitimate way to hire foreign workers), plus some answer for the 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country.

But many more conservative Republicans, particularly in the House, oppose him. The mutiny broke out into the open this month when 80-plus House Republicans signed an angry letter to the president. "We believe that there should be no new guest-worker program," they wrote, "or any expansion of the number of lawful residents in our country until the executive branch better enforces current immigration laws."

The House Republican leadership, on the defensive for other reasons, has grasped at this "enforcement-only" strategy as a way to rally a dispirited caucus: Both former Majority Leader Tom DeLay and his replacement, Roy Blunt, have told any reporter who asks that they think Congress should start by shoring up the border deferring a guest-worker program, perhaps indefinitely. (Speaker Dennis Hastert has so far ducked the conflict, saying only that he wants to move "some type of immigration legislation.")

Pressure is building, and will only get worse in the months to come. Unlike in the past, when Congress hesitated to touch this third-rail issue, many members now fear going home to face voters without moving to reassert control of the border and restore the rule of law.

The problem is that "enforcement only" won't work. The president and his allies, both Republicans and Democrats, are pressing for the only effective way to take control of illegal immigration.

Start with security. Merely cracking down on the border wouldn't come close to delivering the security we need in an age of international terrorism. For one thing, it would do nothing to eliminate the vast underground world now inhabited by millions of illegal immigrants the perfect hiding place for the few foreigners with intent to do us harm.

Nor would it end the influx of new illegal immigrants because that influx is driven by economics.

Sweeping demographic change is transforming our native-born labor force, depriving many U.S. businesses in agriculture, food processing, hospitality, health care and construction of the workers they need to stay afloat and grow.

Absent reform, these businesses face few choices, all ugly: Go out of business, move operations to a country where labor is cheaper or hire illegal foreign workers.

Until we change the law to make it more realistic and enforceable until we pass immigration quotas more in line with our changing labor needs even the most draconian buildup will only drive the flow further underground, not solving the problem but merely pushing it out of sight.

Reform of the kind the president has in mind would help keep Americans employed by keeping labor-starved companies in business and staving off the rush to countries where wages are lower. It would strengthen law-abiding employers at the expense of their unscrupulous, exploitative competitors. And it would restore the rule of law in the workplace and in our communities without undermining the economy.

In other words, unlike the swagger and sound-bytes of the enforcement-only folks, it's a real solution to the problem of illegal immigration.

And interestingly enough, given the choice, rank-and-file Republicans opt overwhelming for the real solution. According to a poll released last week, conducted by The Tarrance Group for the Manhattan Institute, 78 percent of likely Republican voters backed a plan not unlike the president's one that included tougher enforcement but also a "earned legalization" provision for the millions of illegal immigrants already here and working.

Will America adapt to changing circumstances global labor markets, an aging workforce, an increasingly bifurcated high- and low-wage service economy or will we keep our heads in the sand and pretend the 21st century isn't here yet?

Will our government go on denying the country's labor needs or will it recognize and accommodate them, making provision for the consequences, including at local schools and hospitals?

Will our leaders pander to prejudice and xenophobia or come up with an answer for the vast majority of Americans who aren't anti-immigrant, just determined to retake control of the border and restore the rule of law in their communities?

Few issues say as much about who we are as a nation as our approach to immigration. It isn't just about "them" the foreigners coming to help man our economy. It's about "us": our values and our identity as Americans.

The nation will face a choice in the months to come, and it will resonate, for better or worse, far into the future.

Reproduced with permission.

About The Author

Tamar Jacoby is a Senior Fellow at The Manhattan Institute.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.