The Bush administration is desperate for a victory somewhere -- anywhere -- and White House operatives are hoping that they may eke one out on an unlikely issue: immigration reform.
For weeks now, administration officials, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, have been meeting with Republican senators to try to put together legislation that will appease the party's immigration hardliners while still attracting enough bipartisan votes to assure passage. Details of the plan leaked out last week when Democrats finally got a look at the proposal -- and the reaction was, predictably, negative.
The heart of the administration's proposal is a new temporary workers program, something the country desperately needs if we are ever to stem the flow of illegal workers into the United States and still provide necessary workers in a full-employment economy. But as currently outlined, the plan will do nothing more than create a class of workers who will never assimilate into the mainstream of our society, much less become Americans.
The plan would not allow workers to bring their families with them, no matter how long they continued to work on renewable two-year permits. But increasing the number of young, unattached males in our society is a recipe for problems.
Families bring stability -- indeed, one of the reasons immigrants have low crime rates is that they are more likely to live in married, two-parent households with children than those who are native-born and of comparable socio-economic status. Instead of families who, after a time, would buy homes and start businesses and whose children would become the new Americans, we would have a permanent class of non-English-speaking workers with no ties to the communities in which they live and work.
And the proposal for dealing with the 12 million illegal aliens already living here isn't much better. On the positive side, Sens. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, who have consistently opposed amnesty for the 12 million, now seem ready to embrace a path toward legalization for those who are here. The plan would be to create a new visa -- dubbed the "Z," perhaps it will be the least desirable visa available -- that would be renewable in three-year increments for a $3,500 fee, on top of an $8,000 initial fine. These provisions are so draconian they would essentially make indentured workers out of the 12 million.
But the proposal is just a starting point, and there is plenty of room to bargain. The bill also includes a huge expansion in enforcement efforts, including a 50 percent increase in the border patrol -- which is already nearly double the size it was when President Bush took office. The plan would also include a secure identity card everyone in the United States would have to use, citizen and non-citizen alike, to gain employment. In addition, the proposal would also expand the current border fence with Mexico to include 200 miles of vehicle barriers, 370 miles of fencing and 300 miles of electronic sensors.
One of those who see the administration's efforts as a glass half-full is the Manhattan Institute's Tamar Jacoby. "It's an important step forward that these Republicans have come up with a proposal that they can take to the Democrats in an effort to craft robust, bipartisan legislation," she told me this week.
"Parts of the proposal are more realistic than others," she said. "But it shifts the battle away from what to do with 12 million already here -- the GOP senators now seem to understand they are going to stay -- to the issue of who will come in the future. The terms and conditions for new workers visas is where both sides will have to do some hard negotiating that will come to compromise."
I hope she's right. But there seems to be a long road ahead to craft a bill that will serve the country well into the future. And the closer we get to another election season, the less likely it will be that Congress will put aside partisan bickering to get this done.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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