Members of the chattering classes keep hoping the immigration issue will just go away. I was once interviewed on a radio show along with an activist on the other side who said Mexico’s falling birthrate would mean that pretty soon we’d be scratching our heads wondering what all the fuss over immigration policy was about. That was nearly 25 years ago. In 2006, Mexican president Vicente Fox said that in ten years we’d be begging for Mexican workers, but they wouldn’t come, because they’d all be employed at home. And just recently, the New York Times ran a front-page story on the coming end of the Mexican immigration flow, a meme eagerly picked up by Michael Barone, Linda Chavez, and other columnists.
There’s a germ of truth here: The flow of illegals across the Mexican border has indeed slowed during the recession. But the tapering off of mass immigration that is said to be just over the horizon always will be. There are nearly 40 million immigrants in the United States — about one in eight residents — and, even during the worst part of the recession, more than 1 million people moved here annually from abroad.
Until the fabled end of immigration actually comes, Republican presidential candidates will need to address the issue. For all their proper focus on government spending and debt, control of our borders remains a central concern of Republican primary voters, and for a large share of independents and Reagan Democrats. What’s more, the usual platitudes are no longer convincing them; having mobilized to stop the Bush-McCain amnesty, and eyeing with suspicion the current administration’s hijinks, voters are more educated than ever. Merely posturing about ever-higher fences, without engaging the issue as a whole, is no longer sufficient for a candidate to be taken seriously by voters concerned about immigration.
Before the last cycle of presidential primaries, I laid out a ten-point immigration plan with achievable goals for a nominee to embrace. This time, I want to do something a little different: lay out three packages of policies — a basic plan, an upgraded plan, and a premium plan — regarding immigration enforcement and numbers, some that a president could implement by himself, others requiring legislation.
The basic package consists of items that any serious Republican aspirant should support. With regard to illegal immigration, there are two main goals: fencing and mandating the use by all employers of E-Verify. With regard to legal immigration, also two goals: ending the visa lottery and eliminating brother-sister chain migration.
Five years ago, Congress mandated the construction of some 700 miles of fencing, and the administration claims that this mandate has been fulfilled. In fact, most of the result is not the two layers of reinforced fencing required by the law; only about 1 percent of the border with Mexico has this. Of the nearly 700 other fenced miles, close to half has only Normandy barriers, which are designed to stop trucks from simply driving over the border but otherwise are so unimposing that your grandmother could hop over one. (Heck, even I can hop over them, and have.) The other half is actual fencing — pedestrian fencing, in Homeland Security lingo — but almost all single-layer, and varying in design from one contractor to the next. Double fencing with roads allowing agents to patrol in between, supplemented by remote sensors and cameras to alert agents to breaches, and forward operating bases right along the border to cut response times — that the deployment of all this is needed should almost go without saying.
But even this stripped-down basic package has to include more than just hardening the border. Limiting the demand for illegals by weakening the attraction of employment is at least as important as limiting the supply by fencing. The policy objective here is to ensure that all new hires are screened through E-Verify, something House Judiciary Committee chairman Lamar Smith is working to make mandatory. Smith’s bill also simplifies the use of E-Verify, ends penalties for innocent paperwork errors, and codifies the process through which employers are informed about existing employees whose names and Social Security numbers don’t match. There has been controversy among immigration hawks about the bill’s preemption of certain state and local activity in this area, but since the states with the most illegals (California, New York, Illinois, even Texas) are unlikely to pass E-Verify mandates on their own, a federal measure is the only way to get it done.