Members of Congress who support an immigration bill that would include a guest worker program and what Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., called a "pathway to legal status" for illegal immigrants insist that they want to discourage further illegal immigration. If so, they can prove it.
All they have to do is pass a law that allows for that legal pathway only after the number of illegal immigrants shrinks in America from some 12 million today to 8 million, or another number that represents a true reduction in illegal immigrants.
When the number of illegal immigrants dips below 8 million, a trigger would allow the federal government to start proceedings to enable those illegal immigrants who otherwise have followed the rules to become legal residents, and eventually citizens. If the number of illegal residents rises above 8 million, the government then can suspend the process until the number falls below 8 million again.
I propose the above because it is both humane and effective. Advocates for undocumented workers argue that people who come here, work hard and establish families should have a pathway to citizenship. Let them become citizens, and they will have a stake in America's future as they enjoy the welcome embrace that naturalized citizenship confers.
The problem is: Amnesty begets more illegal immigration. If Washington required a true reduction of illegal immigration, however, today's immigrants also would have a stake in reducing the ranks of illegal newcomers.
As Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies noted, when President Ronald Reagan signed amnesty legislation in 1986, there were 5 million illegal immigrants, 2.7 million of whom were made legal. Then, "the enforcement promises were pretty much abandoned once the amnesty stuff was out of the way."
Now there are some 12 million illegal immigrants in America. "Every illegal alien who got a green card was replaced by a new illegal alien within 10 years," Krikorian noted.
So why should Americans support another bill that promises to get tough on illegal immigration even as Washington rewards illegal immigrants? Krikorian believes members of Congress are promising tougher enforcement, but "they have no intention of enforcing the immigration laws, period."
Political analysts observe that immigration is splitting the GOP. In fact, the issue is splitting the country because it is so complex. I feel conflicted. I want to welcome immigrants in America. I have met people who came here illegally and worked hard, long hours in their pursuit of the American dream. I want them to join the American family. I also know that America can absorb only so many people. The influx of illegal immigration has depressed wages for low-skilled workers. That's not good for America's poor.
It also can't be good when illegal immigrants have so much contempt for a country's immigration laws that they apparently feel not only that they have a right to break those laws -- but also that they can break U.S. law, and deserve to be rewarded with citizenship.
Washington can respond to this schism in one of two ways: with honest compromise or dishonest legislation. Today, dishonesty is winning. President Bush says he wants a "comprehensive bill" that strengthens enforcement and provides workers for the jobs he says Americans won't take. But the result won't be comprehensive. It will be more cheap labor and more dollars thrown at border enforcement, but to little effect.
If a new law required a reduction in illegal immigration before legalization, then Washington would have an incentive to reduce the number of undocumented workers -- perhaps for the first time in years.