Immigration reform appears dead for 2006. Leaders in both the House and Senate confirm they've been unable to reach a compromise between the respective versions of immigration legislation passed by the two bodies.
While this news will disappoint many people on both sides of the issue, it's probably for the best. The last thing we need is a political compromise that doesn't solve our immigration dilemma. And it is a dilemma, even if politicians and interest groups won't admit it.
A new Congress will have a fresh start to tackle the issue. Here are some guidelines they might want to follow:
First, we must secure our borders, but we need to do so in a sensible way that does not violate our values. The administration has already made some progress in this regard. With the addition of new border patrol agents, more sophisticated detection equipment and the assistance of National Guard troops in high traffic areas, the number of illegal aliens from Mexico has declined to a four-year low. Illegal immigration today is, in fact, less than it was during the late 1990s, having peaked in 2000.
Second, Americans are a law-abiding people. We expect everyone to obey the law, even if it is inconvenient, irrational or counterproductive -- and current immigration law is all of those things. Most importantly, we want lawbreakers to be punished. The most intractable problem in solving our immigration dilemma is to decide what to do about the 12 million illegal aliens who are currently living in the United States.
It is not in anyone's interest to keep illegal aliens living in a shadow world outside the law, nor is it feasible or desirable to round up millions of people and deport them. But allowing them to gain legal status without somehow making amends for having broken the law in the first place strikes most Americans as unfair.
Congress must fashion a penalty that fits the infraction: some combination of fine, probationary legal status and, perhaps, a requirement that the illegal alien return to his or her country of origin, even if only for a very brief period, in order to re-enter the United States lawfully. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, have offered a novel proposal on this latter score, which would establish government-authorized but privately run Ellis Island centers to process visa applications in countries that are NAFTA or CAFTA signatories.
Third, whatever immigration reform is enacted, it must be flexible enough to conform to changing economic conditions. It is impossible to predict how many immigrant workers we are going to need two years from now, much less 20, nor is it possible to know precisely what skills will be most needed in the future. Immigration legislation should include triggers based on economic indicators that increase the number of work visas available when the economy is expanding or when certain skills are in short supply, and decrease the number when unemployment is high.
Finally, we must rededicate ourselves to assimilating immigrants who live here. The job of doing so will be easier if we give preference to immigrants who already speak English, regardless of their country of origin. Those who want to come to the United States will have an incentive to study English before they come, and their adjustment will be much easier once they arrive.
We also have to ensure that the children of immigrants learn English quickly when they enter public schools, which means adopting good English immersion programs for children who don't speak the language. And we need to improve our civics and American history curricula so that newcomers learn about their new country.
The last thing we need or want is a large group that is isolated by language and becomes a permanent subculture within our society. The fear that this is already happening drives much of the immigration hysteria that has dominated the debate over the last year. But prejudice and animosity toward the foreign-born won't make assimilation happen. Congress should bear that in mind and not fan the flames of ignorance and bigotry when it takes up immigration reform next year.