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Guard the Borders -- And Face Facts, Too

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By George F. Will
Thursday, March 30, 2006

America, the only developed nation that shares a long -- 2,000-mile -- border with a Third World nation, could seal that border. East Germany showed how: walls, barbed wire, machine gun-toting border guards in towers, mine fields, large, irritable dogs. And we have modern technologies that East Germany never had: sophisticated sensors, unmanned surveillance drones, etc.

It is a melancholy fact that many of these may have to be employed along the U.S.-Mexican border. The alternatives are dangerous and disagreeable conditions for Americans residing near the border, and vigilantism. It is, however, important that Americans feel melancholy about taking such measures to frustrate immigration that usually is an entrepreneurial act: taking risks to get to America to do work most Americans spurn. As the debate about immigration policy boils, augmented border control must not be the entire agenda, lest other thorny problems be ignored, and lest America turn a scowling face to the south and, to some extent, to many immigrants already here.

But control belongs at the top of the agenda, for four reasons. First, control of borders is an essential attribute of sovereignty. Second, conditions along the border mock the rule of law. Third, large rallies by immigrants, many of them here illegally, protesting more stringent control of immigration reveal that many immigrants have, alas, assimilated: They have acquired the entitlement mentality created by America's welfare state, asserting an entitlement to exemption from the laws of the society they invited themselves into. Fourth, giving Americans a sense that borders are controlled is a prerequisite for calm consideration of what policy that control should serve.

Of the nation's illegal immigrants -- estimated to be at least 11 million, a cohort larger than the combined populations of 12 states -- 60 percent have been here at least five years. Most have roots in their communities. Their children born here are U.S. citizens. We are not going to take the draconian police measures necessary to deport 11 million people. They would fill 200,000 buses in a caravan stretching bumper-to-bumper from San Diego to Alaska -- where, by the way, 26,000 Latinos live. And there are no plausible incentives to get the 11 million to board the buses.

Facts, a conservative (John Adams) said, are stubborn things, and regarding immigration, true conservatives take their bearings from facts such as those in the preceding paragraph. Conservatives should want, as the president proposes, a guest worker program to supply what the U.S. economy demands -- immigrant labor for entry-level jobs. Conservatives should favor a policy of encouraging unlimited immigration by educated people with math, engineering, technology or science skills that America's education system is not sufficiently supplying.

And conservatives should favor reducing illegality by putting illegal immigrants on a path out of society's crevices and into citizenship by paying fines and back taxes and learning English. Faux conservatives absurdly call this price tag on legal status "amnesty." Actually, it would prevent the emergence of a sullen, simmering subculture of the permanently marginalized, akin to the Arab ghettos in France. The House-passed bill, making it a felony to be in the country illegally, would make 11 million people permanently ineligible for legal status. To what end?

Within a decade the New York and Washington metropolitan regions will join the Miami, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco regions in having majorities made up of minorities, partly because immigrants have higher birthrates than whites. Since 2000, births, not immigration, have been the largest source of growth of America's Latino population.

Urban immigrant communities, with their support networks, are magnets for immigrants. Good. Investor's Business Daily reports a new study demonstrating that "over the past 30 years rising immigration led to higher wages for U.S.-born workers. Cities that served as migrant magnets did better than others. Why? Hiring one worker creates wealth with which to hire more workers."

The president, who has not hoarded his political capital, spent some trying to get the nation to face facts about the bleak future of an unreformed Social Security system. Concerning which: In 1940 there were 42 workers for every retiree; today there are 3.1. By 2030, when all 77 million baby boomers will have left the work force, there will be only 2.2. And that projection assumes net annual immigration, legal and illegal, of 900,000, more than double the 400,000 foreigners who, under the terms of proposed Senate legislation, could come here to work each year.

Today the president is spending more of his depleted political capital by standing to the left of much of his political base, which favors merely preventative and punitive measures regarding immigration. He is right to take his stand there.

georgewill@washpost.com


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