Getting immigration right

Michael Barone

11/7/2005 12:05:00 AM - Michael Barone

There is something like 10 million illegal immigrants in the United States today. Most of them are working at jobs with willing employers, or as day laborers, or are the children of such workers.
 
You can see the day laborers, if you live in a metropolitan area with any economic vibrancy, lined up at 7 a.m. on street corners waiting for the offer of a day's work. You can see them clustered in those storefront shops offering cheap phone calls to Mexico or El Salvador or the Philippines. Or, if you could go out with the Border Patrol and a pair of night-vision goggles, you could see them in the mountains and valleys and desert floors of Cochise County, Ariz., as they move across the border and head toward booming Phoenix or Las Vegas.

How has this come to be? Before the restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s, almost all immigrants came in boats from Europe and passed through entry stations like Ellis Island -- they could be easily kept track of and counted.

We passed restrictive laws after World War I that vastly increased the power of the state, and enforcement proved relatively easy. Now, our borders are porous because people can get in by airplane or on foot. Visa holders can overstay their visas. Whole industries -- farming on the West Coast, meatpacking in the Midwest, chicken processing in the South -- seem to depend on immigrant labor, and documents can easily be forged.

Critics charge that immigration drives down wages at the low end of the labor market, but the effect seems minimal -- anyway, when unemployment is low, it's not clear that millions of illegal workers could be easily replaced even if employers offered higher wages.

But there is a pretty widespread consensus, in a time when we are threatened by terrorism, that border security can and should be improved. The fence built in San Diego and increased border patrolling around El Paso, Texas, reduced the illegal inflow there, and it increased in the Arizona desert. With our high-tech capabilities, we surely should be able to do better than we are now. And there are surely better ways to keep track of visa holders.

There is less consensus on what should be done about illegals currently in the United States. In his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush called for a guest- worker program, allowing illegals to legalize their status. Many other Republicans, the loudest of them Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, have said that this amounts to amnesty and would reward those who broke the law.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is busy ending our "catch and release" program. But Bush and Congress have not done much on new immigration legislation until this year. The guest-worker issue splits Republicans, and Democrats are not unified on it, either.

Some Democrats who favor guest workers are leery about what they consider overly harsh border security and reporting requirements. But as private citizens who call themselves Minutemen have taken to patrolling the Arizona border, and as the Democratic governors of Arizona and New Mexico have called for tougher border enforcement, pressure on Congress to act is enormous.

For several months, there have been White House meetings with members of Congress, including Democrats, on immigration. Now, the talk is that the House will take up the issue in December and pass a tough border security bill, which will probably be backed by all Republicans and many Democrats, and that the Senate will take up that issue and also consider the vying guest-worker bills early next year.

Republicans Jon Kyl and John Cornyn are sponsoring a bill that would require current illegals to return to their native countries before receiving temporary guest-worker permits. John McCain and Edward Kennedy are sponsoring a bill that would allow them to apply to regularize their status while remaining in the United States.

If the Senate passes a bill -- a big if -- the issue would go to conference committee. Republican leaders in Congress and the administration hope that a conference committee version with both border security and guest worker provisions can be jammed through the House, which will take some Democratic as well as Republican votes.

Passage in the Senate should be easier. But there's still a lot of hard work to be done before an immigration bill gets to Bush's desk.