"I'm in favor of immigration," Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.) once said. "But we also need rules." Most Americans probably agree. So why are sensible rules so hard to come by?
Last year, lawmakers on Capitol Hill tried and failed to pass comprehensive immigration and border security reform. The bill died largely because it tried to do too many things. For example, it would have granted amnesty to the millions here illegally and put all of them -- whether they came here to work hard or to commit crimes -- on a path to citizenship.
Fortunately, that approach collapsed. But the problems persist. America needs to regain control of its broken southern border and restore the integrity of U.S. immigration laws. Employers, meanwhile, need legal workers to grow the American economy. Doing nothing won't make these troubles go away.
There is, in fact, a lot that can be done. Yes, without disgorging a massive comprehensive bill hundreds of pages long and stuffed with special-interest demands -- one that members are expected to vote on first and read later. The problem is, congressional leaders appear unwillingly to let anything come to the floor. Certain lawmakers are insisting that nothing be done unless Congress follows last year's flawed formula. Right now, the leadership is listening.
Holding immigration reform and enforcement hostage won't work. An amnesty-first strategy formed the basis of the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli legislation, Washington's last major attempt at an overhaul. Then, an estimated 3 million were "unlawfully present." Now it's easily five times that number. Rampant fraud and a tsunami of applications overwhelmed the system. The number of visas for legal workers was far too small to meet the needs of a growing economy. Border security and workplace enforcement couldn't keep up with the demand for undocumented workers.
Americans learned their lesson. That's why they soundly rejected this approach a second time.
But something must be done. American employers likely won't just sit by while Congress does nothing -- frozen between those who want amnesty at any cost and those who want secure borders and iron-clad enforcement of the law. America needs workers. With the economy slowing, it's more important than ever to get employers the workers they need so that they can prime the business pump again.
High-tech companies are demanding more visas for high-skilled workers. They just can't get enough. On April 1, foreigners with specialized skills and a college degree or higher could apply for a U.S. work visa for fiscal year 2009. The quota -- 65,000 -- was filled almost immediately. Admitting such a low number of qualified workers hurts the high-tech industry in the United States and pushes the smartest people to work in competing countries.
Some U.S companies that are desperate for workers, such as Microsoft, have moved certain branches to Canada and Mexico. Adding these kinds of workers to our economy makes sense. A National Foundation for American Policy study concluded the average S&P 500 company creates five new domestic jobs for each H-1B visa employee hired.
We also need low-skilled workers. According to the Labor Department, between 600,000 and 800,000 here illegally are working on America's farms -- mostly because employers can't find legal workers to do the job. In a sense, though, illegal labor isn't cheap labor; it's subsidized by communities crushed under the burden of education, emergency-room care and other benefits and entitlements they must pay to take care of America's shadow work force. With food prices rising and many communities emptying their tax coffers, the need for more legal agricultural workers has never been more severe.
America wants border security and workplace enforcement, along with a legal workforce adequate to its needs, now -- not when it's convenient for the Congress. The administration must continue to increase border security and more stringently enforce immigration laws. But Congress must also streamline current visa programs, raise caps and implement measures to reduce visa over-stay rates.
One measure should be to provide incentives for temporary worker visas to participate in a voluntary land-border exit checkout system. Workers that check out should automatically be eligible to qualify for future temporary worker programs. Those that don't should be barred from participating in future programs. Employers should post bonds that are redeemed when their workers check out. Countries whose workers exceed a 2 percent over-stay rate for a visa category should have their citizens barred from participating in that category of temporary work program.
Workable solutions are possible. But can Congress muster the will to make them happen?
James Jay Carafano, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow for National Security and Homeland Security at The Heritage Foundation and author of "G.I. Ingenuity."
First appeared in the Washington Post