Bernard Kerik might not have been the dream candidate for homeland security secretary that most of us imagined when the president first announced his nomination, but disqualifying him for the job because he hired an illegal alien should give pause to lawmakers and citizens alike. Whether we care to admit it or not, most of us benefit from the services of illegal aliens, even if indirectly, and the law that ensnarled Kerik has turned many good people into scofflaws. Currently there are some 12 million illegal aliens living -- and working -- in the United States, which makes lawbreakers of the millions of otherwise law-abiding Americans who hire illegal immigrants as nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, painters, carpenters, and for other odd jobs. Is this really a good thing for the country or an effective way to control illegal immigration?
I have special reason to be concerned. My own nomination to be secretary of labor was derailed in 2001 when it became public that a decade earlier I had taken into my home and given modest financial assistance to a battered and abused woman from Guatemala, who at the time was illegally living in the United States. Although the actual circumstances of my situation were different from Kerik's -- or that of Clinton Cabinet nominees felled by this policy, Zoe Baird and Kimba Wood -- the underlying issue was the same. If there is an illegal alien in your past, forget about serving your country in any high-level position.
Although some news organizations have suggested that other ethical and moral lapses doomed Kerik's nomination, this does not appear to be the case. The Washington Post reports, "White House officials said they knew in advance about other disclosures now emerging about Kerik's background, including alleged extramarital affairs and reported ties to a construction company with supposed mob connections, but had concluded that they were not disqualifying." So suspicions about mob ties don't doom a nomination but hiring an illegal alien does? Something is very wrong here, but it's not the White House's fault.
When the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed Congress in 1986, there were 3 million illegal aliens living in the United States. The law was supposed to stem illegal immigration by punishing employers who hired illegal aliens, and not just big companies. Even individuals who hired someone to cut their grass or take care of their babies were suddenly turned into quasi-immigration officials. The law required all employers to check documents to make sure that prospective workers had a right to be in the United States and maintain records -- so-called I-9's -- on file for five years.
So did this cumbersome and bureaucratic enforcement mechanism work to reduce illegal immigration? No, in fact, the number of illegal immigrants living here has quadrupled since the law passed. Like Prohibition, IRCA has been a monumental failure. Although most Americans abhor illegal immigration, according to recent polls on the subject, they would not like the consequences if we actually were able to kick out the 12 million illegal aliens currently living here. Are we really prepared to pay more for everything from burgers at the local fast-food restaurant to the cost of new homes? There is no question this would happen if we eliminated those workers from our labor pool.
The only solution is to make it easier -- not harder -- for immigrants who want to work to come here legally. The president's much-maligned guest worker proposal is a step in the right direction. But a solution still has to be found for dealing with those illegal aliens already here. It makes no sense to kick them out in order to bring in millions of different people to fill their jobs. A one-time fine of both illegal aliens and the employers who knowingly hire them, along with the chance for undocumented workers to legalize their status if they have not broken other laws, would seem the proper punishment. Then maybe we could quit disqualifying otherwise good candidates from serving the nation.