Did the Kennedy-Bush immigration bill fail because its opponents played on the racial prejudices that some Americans harbor against immigrants as Linda Chavez and others--including none other than the president of the United States--have suggested? Hardly.
The reason the legislation was unsuccessful is simple: It would have granted amnesty to the 12 million or more individuals illegally in the U.S. and done little to secure the border, enforce the law, or facilitate lawful migration. A policy of amnesty first and security and enforcement promises is a recipe for disaster.
The argument in favor of the Senate legislation was premised on a false choice, between permanent legalization and the forced deportation of every illegal immigrant. Yet the solution to the challenges of reforming immigration does not necessitate--and will not result from--"comprehensive" legislation or "grand bargains" that compromise on principle and security.
Rather than reviving a flawed paradigm, or accepting the status quo and taking a wholly unacceptable "do nothing" approach, lawmakers should try a simple strategy based on four basic points:
- Enforce the laws. There are already numerous laws that, if enforced in a targeted manner, would create clear disincentives for illegal immigration, and especially for employers of illegal labor, as well as signal that illegal entry and employment will no longer be overlooked.
- Regain control of our southern border. Many of the border security provisions of the Senate proposal are already in the law--as in the Secure Fences Act of 2006 and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004--and well under way.
- Emphasize legal immigration. We should welcome those who abide by immigration laws and deny entry and advantage to those who violate these laws.
- Create flexible legal opportunities to work in the United States. A balanced and well-constructed temporary-worker program--one that allows for a market-driven source of labor provided by a rotating temporary workforce--would diminish the incentives for illegal immigration by providing an additional option for legal entry and, combined with other reforms, gradually reduce the population of illegal aliens.
These elements--along with a general rejection on amnesty--offer a real possibility for strengthening America's security, and replacing over time an undocumented labor force with temporary workers and new legal immigrants. It is also prudent: Additional options may become reasonable once these policies are allowed to operate over time, and policymakers could consider those options at a later date.
This strategy is not only realistic, it is readily at hand. Most of the tools required to beef-up border security and pursue workplace enforcement are already on the books, approved and mostly authorized by Congress. The only missing programmatic component is a practical and realistic alternative for legal temporary workers.
The point is that rather than trying to amend the existing proposal or draft another mammoth and unwieldy comprehensive bill, Congress should enact piecemeal a few nonpartisan measures, consistent with broadly acceptable principles and the general popular consensus, to complete the tasks at hand.
This would be a real achievement, helping lawmakers not only to regain the trust and confidence of the American people but also to meet their solemn obligations to keep America safe, prosperous, and free for all Americans--and all those who will become Americans--today and for generations to come.
First appeared in the National Review online.