Critics also claim giving legal status to those already residing her illegally -- as President Reagan did in 1986 -- will only encourage more people to come illegally. The argument sounds right given the number of illegal immigrants who have come and settled her since 1986. What critics don't take into account, however, is the 1986 law was flawed from the beginning -- and not because it didn't call for stricter enforcement. The flaw is that it never allowed for immigration inflow to be based on the needs of the U.S. economy and to be driven by the market rather than federal bureaucrats.
Even worse, the employer sanctions put in place in the 1986 law have proven unenforceable -- and not because evil employers are out there recruiting and exploiting illegal workers. The law requires every person who hires an individual to perform work on his or her behalf -- including babysitting, cutting lawns or housecleaning -- to collect and maintain information on the worker's legal status, even if that person does only occasional, part-time work and is American-born.
Most individuals ignore the law (or at least don't fill out the forms and keep them for at least one year after employment is terminated), though the government rarely goes after them. But employers, big and small, do so at their peril. They face civil and criminal prosecution that can amount to millions of dollars in fines. So employers collect the required data, forcing every prospective employee (including American citizens) to produce proof of eligibility to work. The result has been a mountain of bureaucratic red tape, which has also spawned a lucrative and dangerous new industry: identity fraud and the forging of documents for those who lack legal documents.
The best way to fix the problem of illegal immigration is to let the market decide how many people come each year. We already know roughly what the market has absorbed over the last twenty years or so, just look at the combined number of legal and illegal immigrants who came. The market, not tougher enforcement, is a far better regulator -- and one that conservatives especially should embrace. But don't expect logic or ideological consistency to dominate the debate when rhetoric and political opportunism have provided the sound and fury on this issue for decades.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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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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