WASHINGTON, D.C. -- This week, as the U.S. Senate debated its "comprehensive immigration reform" bill, Mexico's President, Vicente Fox, speaking to the Utah legislature, decried the erection of barriers along the border his country shares with ours. "We won't resolve this problem with fences, but hand in hand, working together," the Mexican leader said. Unfortunately, our neighbors have done nothing to stop a tidal wave of humanity flowing across our southern border. To make matters worse, the bill passed on Friday by the U.S. Senate offers little that will solve the problem.
Immigration reform has generated more emotion in the heartland of America than any other issue in years. But much of the angst heard during heated exchanges in both Houses of Congress and at protest demonstrations across the land could have been avoided had the issue been properly framed by the Bush administration.
In the midst of a global war against suicidal terrorists bent on inflicting mass casualties, shoring up our frontiers should be a no-brainer. Fixing the border sieve first, before deciding what to do about illegal aliens already in the country, would have gained support from a significant majority of American citizens and lawmakers.
But now, 15 months after the president first announced his "guest-worker" program, it's clear that the only thing that people south of the border heard was "amnesty." According to Border Patrol agents who captured a record 1.2-million people illegally entering America last year, the hope of forgiveness for unlawfully entering the United States has become the principal motive for impoverished job seekers to race for our southern border.
The Tucson and Yuma, Ariz., areas are crossed most frequently. There, the Border Patrol reports 589,831 arrests -- more than Texas, California and New Mexico combined. They also estimate that more than 500,000 illegals evaded apprehension. The explanation: Our 10,500 Border Patrol agents have simply been overwhelmed. It remains to be seen whether 6,000 National Guardsmen will help staunch the flood. Last year the House Immigration Reform Caucus estimated that at least 36,000 Guardsmen would be needed.
Even if enhanced border patrols and surveillance work, that won't resolve what to do about the 12-20 million illegal aliens already here. Rewarding these lawbreakers with citizenship -- eventual or immediate -- is not an option because, judging from history, it is only likely to encourage more illegal immigration. That's what happened in the aftermath of the amnesty granted 20 years ago in a political compromise worked out between Congress and President Ronald Reagan. The 1986 program granted pardon to 3-million illegals -- but failed to follow through on improved border security or enforcing tougher sanctions on hiring undocumented workers. The result: a six-month lull in illegal crossings -- and then the flow of humanity resumed.
Regrettably, the bill passed by the Senate this week repeats many of the mistakes of the '80s -- even replicating some of the original language. The Heritage Foundation estimates that if the current Senate bill became law, it would permit "103-million persons to legally immigrate to the United States over the next 20 years -- fully one-third of the current population of the United States."
In the aftermath of the Senate vote, some members in both parties are now saying that there is scant hope for getting any real reform before the 2008 elections.
But not everyone is giving up. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, says that, "We still have a chance to do the right thing." She is proposing that a House-Senate Conference incorporate what she calls the "Secure Authorized Foreign Employee," or SAFE Visa plan into the final bill.
Sen. Hutchison's measure would permit foreign workers who passed a background check and who have proof of U.S. employment to apply for visas in their home country. Employers would be responsible for bearing the costs of getting these foreign workers to the United States. SAFE Visas would last for 10 months, at which time workers would be required to return home for two months before it could be renewed. Employers would be responsible for all appropriate tax and other paycheck deductions, and all Medicare withholding for SAFE cardholders would be used to pay for uncompensated emergency health care provided to non-citizens. No one on a SAFE Visa would be eligible for federal, state or local government-sponsored social services, and any illegal alien seeking a SAFE Visa would have to go home first to apply.
Though this eminently sensible idea was rejected by the Senate, Hutchison plans to ratchet up the pressure on her "colleagues" to include it in any final bill by pointing to the obvious security advantages of the SAFE Visa: "I believe that any legislation addressing immigration must first address the safety and security needs of the United States. In a world where terrorists continue to seek to harm Americans, we must protect our citizens. We have every right to know who is in our country, who has crossed our borders, the nature and purpose and length of the visit. And we're negligent if we don't know these things."
She's right. And if the president from Texas is wise, he'll get behind the SAFE Visa and push hard to see it enacted. Then, when he signs it into law, he can thank the "Gentle lady from Texas" for pulling his fat out of the fire.