Compassion on the border?

Posted: May 24, 2004 12:00 AM

    One of President Bush's most recent "compassionate" initiatives has indirectly led to more horrific deaths along the Arizona-Mexico border. Bush's proposal for a quasi-amnesty for illegal aliens has been interpreted by poor Mexicans as a welcome mat, increasing the rate of attempted border crossings and the tragic deaths that go with them. Sixty-one people have died along the Arizona border since last October, a threefold increase from the rate of the previous year.

    The bodies are a testament to America's broken immigration system. If we really want to encourage more Mexicans to come here, we should have the decency to help ensure their safe passage. If we don't -- as most politicians, including Bush, would maintain -- then all talk of any sort of amnesty should be dropped, and our seriousness about enforcing immigration laws should be broadcast so clearly that it is understood even in the far reaches of Mexico.

    Poor Mexicans don't follow every intricacy of America's political debate, but they get the message when the president is proposing to reward illegal entry into the United States. "Political officials need to realize that their words have consequences," says Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies. "Just hypothesizing out loud about an amnesty has real effects." Some illegals are shocked that they are arrested coming across the border: "Hey, where's my amnesty?"

    During the first six months of this fiscal year, apprehensions have increased roughly 25 percent across the Southwest, and 50 percent near Tucson. The Bush administration argues that the increased apprehensions are a sign of the success of increased enforcement. But just a few weeks ago, an administration official told Congress that decreased apprehensions prior to this recent spike were a sign of the success of increased enforcement. According to the Bush administration apparently, anything that happens on the border is a success.

    The lure for the latest wave of illegals was a Bush proposal in January, effectively to legalize illegal immigrants here with jobs, and give work visas to Mexicans who have work lined up. Eventually the reverberations from Bush's proposal in Mexico will settle down, but there will inevitably be some other signal that the United States doesn't care about its immigration laws. Ted Kennedy recently saw Bush's quasi-amnesty and raised it with a proposal, in effect, for a blanket amnesty.

    The good news behind the spike in border crossings is that what we say and do matters. Advocates of loose borders always say that illegal crossings are "inevitable." What they mean by inevitable is that they don't want to try anything serious to stop them. But if crossings go up when we signal that we don't care about our immigration laws, it stands to reason that they will go down if we send the opposite signal. Indeed, large numbers of illegal Pakistani immigrants voluntarily left New York City when a few deportations after 9/11 sent the signal that being here illegally carries major risks.

    How to send a different signal? Obviously, we should avoid giving the advantages of citizenship to people here illegally. Kansas, for instance, will soon give in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants to attend state colleges. The perverse result is that illegals will pay less for tuition than foreign students here on visas to study.

    We also need at the very least to use the resources we have to crack down. Last year, the Social Security Administration sent a million "no match" letters to employers, alerting them that their employees might be illegals using bogus Social Security numbers. Immigrant and business groups pressured the SSA to ease up. Similarly, the Internal Revenue Service can flag tax returns that likely come from illegals, but it is prevented as a matter of policy from sharing this information with immigration authorities. We shouldn't be tying our own hands when it comes to immigration enforcement.

    Fortunately, Bush's January proposal is stalled. That's just the first step toward saying in a way everyone understands: "U.S. borders mean something."