Race to the border

Jack Kemp
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Posted: Jan 12, 2004 12:00 AM

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.

Therefore, while Bush's proposal is a good start, I believe it is necessary to go further than simply creating a guest-worker program; I believe people here illegally should be provided a means to earn citizenship by holding a job, obeying the law, paying taxes, learning the language and other generally accepted activities of "good citizenship." I applaud Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Tom Daschle, D-SD, for their efforts in this direction.

For example, Cesar Conda, a former economic aide to Vice President Cheney and new Empower America board member, points out in a recent article that from 1953-'59 under the Bracero Program, which created a legal path for migrants coupled with enhanced enforcement policies, the flow of illegal immigration declined by 95 percent. And, for the 13-year period after the program ended, Immigration and Naturalization Service applications for legal entry increased more than 1,000 percent.

As The Wall Street Journal pointed out Friday, as long as the wage differential between Mexico and the United States remains somewhere on the order of $30,000, there will be irresistible forces at work either to attract Mexican workers into the United States or to drive U.S. firms into Mexico. Far better, in my opinion, to provide a safe and legal opportunity for Mexican workers to hold jobs in the United States that American workers won't take in the first place than for American firms to take capital out of the United States and relocate it in Mexico to take advantage of Mexican labor.

Bush ought to be commended for once again providing bold leadership on a difficult and seemingly intractable issue where the politics are not entirely certain but the vision is clear and consistent with our national ideal. The devil, however, resides in the details, and Congress will have a difficult task ferreting out potential pitfalls for the wary while smoothing out some of the rough edges that may have been avoided with a little more consultation with experts and allies before the plan was unveiled. Nonetheless, as immigration expert Tamar Jacoby observed about the president's plan in Monday's Wall Street Journal, "What could be more conservative than encouraging the American dream, rewarding work, restoring the rule of law and enhancing our security?"