Take Two: A Second Try At Immigration Reform

Posted: Apr 15, 2007 12:00 AM

Last year at this time President Bush attempted to persuade Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but his efforts ultimately failed. Though Congress passed, and the President signed, the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which called for 700 miles of new fencing on the United States – Mexican border, this new law fell far short of "comprehensive." It did not address how America should deal with the 12 million workers who are already here illegally, nor did it hold businesses that hire illegal aliens as cheap labor accountable for their conduct. True reform must take into consideration each of the facets of the problem associated with illegal immigration if it is to be truly "comprehensive."

Realizing that the crisis has not yet been adequately addressed, President Bush is once again taking up the cause of immigration reform. This week he traveled to Yuma, Arizona to dedicate a new, state-of-the-art border patrol station. In his speech, the President talked not only about the advances his administration has made in securing the border, but also about how America needs a guest worker program, a fair resolution to the problem of those who are already here illegally, and laws that hold employers responsible. When it comes to the President's "goals", the Center for a Just Society is in agreement. As we said last year ( here and here ), all three elements—border control, employer accountability, and a solution for those who are already here—are essential.

The least controversial aspect of comprehensive reform is border control. A sovereign nation must have control of its borders; not even America, the world's most prosperous country, can economically support the millions of men and women who would immigrate here if given the chance. If we hope to survive we must limit the number of people who are allowed to move here each year. Even more importantly, border control is imperative for national security reasons. Many criminals and would-be-terrorists are eager to enter America to pursue their malignant plans. It is just as easy for a Zarqawi to slip through our southern borders as it is for a Gonzalez. The next September 11th must be stopped at the border. Therefore, it is a matter of utmost importance that our borders remain closed to those who do not have permission to enter the United States.

The second aspect of comprehensive reform involves the interface between employers and illegal immigrants. Employers all too often view "illegals" simply as a source of cheap labor. This view has profound implications for our domestic labor force and for the illegal one. The employment of illegals artificially suppresses wages in our domestic labor market because labor can be procured from them for a lower wage than the market would otherwise bear. The availability of such cheap labor drives down wages in the domestic labor market. Illegal immigrants typically are in a weak bargaining position with respect to their employer, and more often than not, they simply have to take what they can get. Because of their lack of economic clout and their illegitimate status, illegal immigrants are ripe targets for exploitation. Consequently, they often find themselves working long hours in unsafe conditions for absurdly low wages. Americans interested in a just society should not countenance exploitation of the weak, even if their presence here is not legal. Human beings should not be treated as cheap and disposable, and businesses that hire illegal aliens and exploit or abuse them should be brought to justice.

Then there is the third aspect of comprehensive reform: the sticky problem of the millions of men and women who are already in America illegally. America is a nation of laws, and we, therefore, cannot ignore the fact that laws have been broken by those who came here illegally. Those who promote an amnesty plan that simply ignores the rule of law are promoting a culture of lawlessness, which is bad for everyone.

We cannot, however, fail to deal with the "elephant in the room." Millions are here illegally. They should not be, but they are. And they are because of our government's neglect with respect to border security. The problem is, in no small part, a problem of our own creation. In addressing this problem, we should avoid the temptation to see illegal immigrants only as law breakers; they are often more than that. Many illegal immigrants are hard working men and women who are genuinely trying to help their families.

As I have said in the past, I believe that any solution to this problem does well to offer both justice and redemption for illegal immigrants. President Bush's proposal last year dealt with both dimensions. Under his plan, illegal immigrants would be given an opportunity to come out of the shadows and register with the United States government. They would be fined for breaking the law, required to learn English, and given a temporary worker's permit. After a certain amount of time has passed, and after they pay their fine, these men and women would have the opportunity to make their relationship with America fully legal; they would be afforded the opportunity to become citizens.

Rather than forgetting that laws were broken by granting amnesty, and rather than simply throwing them out of the country, the President's plan offered foreign workers an opportunity to acknowledge that they broke the law, pay an appropriate fine as punishment, and then redeem the situation by becoming citizens. Men and women who refuse to come forward, or who fail a background test, could be pursued and deported.

Though we are a nation of laws, and though nobody is above the law, we are also a nation of second chances. Nevertheless, we should not forget the requirements of justice; we really do seek a just society. A just society, however, need not be heartless. We should be looking for opportunities to redeem, not merely condemn and punish. The plan advocated by President Bush last year offered important opportunities for both justice and redemption. The President would do well to put forward a similar plan this year. America is still the land of opportunity. May we also be a nation that still offers both justice and redemption.