One of my all-time favorite songs is Neil Diamond's "They're Coming to America." I know it drives the xenophobes on the right crazy and the illiberals on the left into a frenzy, but it reflects my view that people come to America not for welfare but for work, not for food stamps but for their families.
In 1788, George Washington said, "I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong." I could not agree more, which is why I was pleased to see President Bush put immigration reform at the forefront of his domestic policy agenda last week.
For years, everyone has acknowledged that our immigration system is dysfunctional, unfair and hopelessly out of touch with reality. Between 8 and 11 million people live and work illegally in America, and to round them all up and send them back to their homelands would require a fascist police state inconsistent with the individual rights and personal freedoms on which our democracy rests. Done right, however, creating incentives for employed "illegals" to register by extending to them the right to remain here legally for an extended period of time would make it possible to enforce stronger controls to prevent illegal entries in the future.
The president's plan to establish a new temporary-worker program to match foreign workers with U.S. employers if no American workers can fill those jobs is an excellent beginning. It would be open both to new foreign workers and undocumented workers currently residing in the United States. While entirely reasonable, we must be careful not to create an incentive for a race to the border by those who wish to get into the United States to ensure they qualify for this new program. Thus, time is of the essence. Congress must act swiftly, yet deliberately, to enact this legislation so that we can benefit from the good policy prescription while simultaneously minimizing possible perverse incentives.
More broadly speaking, the president's plan seeks to blend salutary economic policy with sound national security by bringing undocumented workers out from the shadows and into the real economy. As Justice Louis Brandeis famously observed, "Sunlight is the best disinfectant." It is important to remember that many of the reported illegal immigrants in the United States today would not be here illegally if our system for legal immigration were not so inefficient in the first place. It's not that these people desire to break the law as much as the fact that the law is broken.
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