Bad Border Bill

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

BEFORE LEAVING town the House of Representatives passed a terrible bill designed to shore up American border security -- or, at least, to appear to do so. The bill, sponsored by Judiciary Committee Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), is dangerous because of what it does and what it doesn't do. It contains any number of mindless criminal penalties for immigration violations, and it would make both detention and deportation of illegal immigrants easier. But it would do nothing to rationalize U.S. immigration policy. The Bush administration, which has rightly argued for a more sensible approach, disgracefully got behind the bill. And House members, many of whom know better, passed it 239 to 182.

Border security is a real issue, but it is not the only -- or even the principal -- issue confronting those who would tackle illegal immigration. Yet the bill would create new criminal penalties -- including some mandatory minimum sentences -- for people who encourage illegal immigration and for immigrants who return to the United States after being deported. It would broaden the range of deportable aliens so that, for example, repeat drunk drivers can be kicked out of the country. It would authorize lots of new spending on border control initiatives. It would force employers to verify employees' Social Security numbers against a national database. It would reimburse sheriffs in the counties that border Mexico for the costs of holding illegal immigrants. Following amendments added on the House floor, it would also create a giant fence along the Mexican border and require that border patrol uniforms be made in the good ol' USA.

Some of these provisions, as part of a larger reform, might make sense. But none will do much to change the fact that 11 million people live illegally in this country, in an economy that cannot function without them. No immigration bill that fails to realistically approach the country's dependence on immigrant labor will fix anything. A serious bill would have to spell out how people looking for work can come here and, in the light of day, find businesses that wish to employ them. It must illuminate some road to legality for those already here. Talking only about enforcement may play to anti-immigration sentiment in the short term. But unless border security measures are a part of comprehensive immigration reform, the goal of secure borders will always remain elusive.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company