Politics & Policy

Immigration Two-Step

A real step for immigration reform.

Anyone remotely interested in comprehensive immigration reform should watch the action in Congress this week about drivers’ licenses and terrorists. On Wednesday, the House of Representatives begins floor consideration of the Real ID Act (H.R. 418), legislation drafted by House Judiciary Chairman F. James Sensenbrenner, which contains the antiterrorist provisions dropped from the intelligence-reform (post-9/11 Commission) legislation late last year.

The bill, introduced by Sensenbrenner and cosponsored by 115 of his House colleagues on January 31, improves U.S. border security in a variety of tangible ways. Sensenbrenner said the main purpose of the bill is to “…prevent another 9/11 attack by disrupting terrorist travel.” It establishes uniform rules that states must follow in granting temporary drivers’ licenses for foreign visitors, making sure they expire when visas do. It also establishes tough new rules for confirming identity before licenses are issued. Moreover, the legislation tightens the existing asylum system abused by terrorists and closes a three-mile hole in the fortified U.S./Mexico border fence.

The Real ID bill nearly tanked the entire intelligence-reform bill at the end of the last Congress. Sensenbrenner initially refused to sign the conference agreement demanding insertion of the Real ID bill, and was backed by a large phalanx of House Republicans. But Senate negotiators objected to its inclusion in the final compromise. So House leaders made a commitment to Sensenbrenner to move the measure early in 2005. This week’s actions follow through on that promise.

The truth is that the measure should have passed last year and never dropped from the comprehensive bill. It’s an important security measure that strengthens our borders and closes loopholes used by terrorists. But in an ironic twist, delaying the legislation until this week also provides a useful lens to focus on immigration reform in toto. And while proponents of broader reform in the Senate may insist on adding the Real ID measure to a more comprehensive bill (a move that could permanently kill this border-security measure), passing the Sensenbrenner bill quickly could actually improve the chances of broad and more effective immigration reform passing later this Congress.

Debating the merits of immigration legislation, like that supported by President Bush and others, will result in many fine columns by talented writers and analysts, here and elsewhere. My argument concerns tactics and process. Problems with border security and the threats associated with it (terrorist, criminal, economic, etc.) are some of the greatest obstacles to passage of comprehensive immigration reform. Those opposed to guest-worker programs and other immigration liberalizing moves are against these measures for a couple of reasons. But a key ingredient to finding common ground is seriousness about porous borders.

Immigration-reform opponents don’t trust the U.S. government to secure its own borders. For a variety of reasons they believe these efforts have not been pursued with enough resources, vigor, or enthusiasm. The number of illegal immigrants in this country makes their case for them. For example, Victor Davis Hanson wrote recently that, “new reports suggest that there may be not eight million, but almost 20 million illegal aliens in the United States, a population larger than most entire states. Four hundred billion dollars in taxes–almost the current annual budget deficit–are not collected due to a growing underground cash economy.”

The social, economic and moral costs of porous borders are breathtaking. Taking border security more seriously is the first step toward broadening a dialogue on comprehensive immigration reform. “I think the Real ID bill is a litmus test,” a former House Republican leadership aide familiar with the debate told me. “If Congress can’t pass this kind of common-sense legislation to strengthen our borders, the chances of getting consensus on some broader measure is doomed.”

He’s right. And demonstrating seriousness on issues will help build confidence and trust, providing momentum for further sound reforms. Enacting the Real ID bill is a first step. But if the legislation gets bogged down in the Senate, and added to a growing laundry list called “comprehensive reform” like some have suggested, those interested in any kind of immigration reform–narrow or broad–better get ready to wait a long time.

There are obviously a host of other issues about broader immigration reform that must be addressed before the issue is ripe for congressional prime time. “We’re just not ready to pass comprehensive legislation yet,” a Republican senator told me. “But all sides need to continue to talk to each other.”

The broader immigration debate should also raise a variety of questions about the state of contemporary American culture, and the societal infrastructure available to help immigrants become Americans. Opponents of liberalizing policies have legitimate concerns about whether our civic institutions and societal values are still strong enough to assimilate immigrants into the country the way we did 50 years ago. As Hanson writes, in the past “…measured, legal immigration, English immersion, multiracialism instead of multiculturalism, and integration have ensured that past legal immigrants from Mexico are among America’s finest citizens.” His comments are true for immigrants from other parts of the world, as well. But do those common attributes that bound Americans together in the past still exist, and are the cultural institutions and immigration policies strong enough to create the unum out of the pluribus? All good questions.

That’s why anyone interested in a healthy debate about immigration should support the two-step approach offered by Sensenbrenner this week. Because as long as those engaged in the immigration debate question whether we have the political will and strategic wisdom to secure even our own borders, the answers to these other questions are self-evident. Comprehensive immigration reform, such as that envisioned by President Bush, is doomed.

Gary Andres is vice chairman of research and policy at the Dutko Group Companies and a frequent NRO contributor.

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