Enforcement-Plus Is Critical

Saturday, July 8, 2006

AS REPUBLICANS this week began a series of hearings on immigration policy, President Bush was reportedly signaling new openness to compromise designed to produce legislation this year. The compromise, according to a report in the New York Times, would center on "enforcement-first": improve border security, as a majority of House Republicans want, and only then move on to the guest-worker program and legalization for illegal immigrants that Mr. Bush and a majority of senator s favor.

In principle such a compromise makes sense, but there are many ways it could go wrong. The rationale goes something like this: Congress has tried immigration reform before, most recently in 1986. That measure provided a path to legalization for undocumented workers and promised tougher enforcement to discourage illegal immigration, but the tougher enforcement never came, so the illegal immigrants kept coming. This time, therefore, the government should prove its commitment to controlling the nation's borders before offering hope to the 11 million or so illegal immigrants here now. Some version of amnesty (though the word won't be used) would be more palatable if Americans knew it wouldn't be repeated every decade or two.

The danger, though, is that "enforcement-first" will devolve into "enforcement-only," which would be both inhumane and impractical. So Mr. Bush, if he is exploring a compromise, should insist that enforcement and a path to citizenship remain part of one legislative package. The path to citizenship should be generous enough, and free enough of bureaucratic requirements, to be meaningful to most immigrants who have followed every other law since arriving here (including paying taxes). The comprehensive package should include a healthy enough increase in legal immigration to meet the needs of a growing U.S. economy, on both the high-tech and low-wage ends.

Most important, the delay in implementing these measures can't be inde finite -- and can't depend on conditions that will never be met. The legalization part of the package could wait for a year or two while the administration beefs up border patrols and workplace inspections. But it can't depend on some promise of decreased immigration that can never be met or measured.

In the end, enforcement-only won't work; and Mr. Bush, who knows that, shouldn't accept a disguised version of enforcement-only simply because he wants some legislation this year.

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