The issue of immigration rocketed back onto the political agenda last year. From the president to talk radio to community town halls, it is hard to escape the ongoing debate about how to bring order back to our borders. It would be madness to continue with the policies that have failed us for three decades. To solve this problem, Congress and the administration will need to look beyond the soundbites. Having been responsible for immigration-enforcement policy during the first two years of the Department of Homeland Security, I can say with certainty that to best ensure our homeland security, we need to enact comprehensive immigration reform that not only bolsters our enforcement, but also allows our businesses to hire the workers they cannot find in the U.S.
Late last year, the House of Representatives passed an immigration-enforcement bill authored by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King and Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner. This bill would bring new resources to border enforcement that nearly all experts view as necessary to deter illegal entry. But nobody should think for a minute that just laying even more chips on the enforcement side of the table is going to solve our immigration problems. Not a chance. Unless this proposal is coupled with massive reforms in how we treat willing foreign workers and those who have already arrived to work, this bill will be the equivalent of throwing more shovels of sand on a castle as the tide comes in: well-intentioned but futile. Instead, it’s time to channel the apparent public anger into a legislative approach that will actually work.
With each year that passes, our country’s shifting demographics mean we face a larger and larger shortage of workers, especially at the low-skilled end of the economy. Entire segments of the economy in a growing number of urban and rural areas depend on large illegal populations. Statistics developed by the Pew Hispanic Center indicate that over 15 percent of the workers in the U.S. in the following occupations are working illegally: drywall installers, roofers, painters, cooks, maids, cement masons, construction laborers, agricultural workers, and others. Existing law allows only a small fraction of these workers even to attempt to enter the United States legally, even though our unemployment rate has fallen below five percent.
Thus, each week our labor market entices thousands of individuals, most from Mexico but many from numerous other countries, to sneak across our border, or to refuse to leave when a temporary visa expires. Any conservative who believes in the free market and the laws of supply and demand can understand how difficult border enforcement will be so long as we refuse to allow these willing workers a chance to work for a willing employer.
Moreover, the ensuing flow of illegal immigrants and people overstaying their visas has made it extremely difficult for our border and interior enforcement agencies to be able to focus on the terrorists, organized criminals, and violent felons who use the cloak of anonymity that the current chaotic situation offers.
The looming debate in the U.S. Senate offers a chance to get immigration reform right for the first time.
‐First, as the House legislation would do, we should build up our border defenses: advanced technology, better infrastructure, more Border Patrol agents, streamlined deportation processing, enhanced cooperation with foreign governments, and a Secure Border Initiative strategic plan to tie it all together. People who would cross our borders illegally, or remain here illegally, must know that they will be detected, held, and removed.
‐Second, employers should be given a mechanism for hiring workers to fill jobs that the domestic workforce will not. These workers would have to pass a security check and would not be allowed to burden taxpayers by collecting welfare. Obviously, employers need a way of verifying that a would-be worker is eligible to work. Over time, an efficient system should be developed to analyze identification documents presented by U.S. citizens and by foreign workers. The system should be tested in phases, by selecting particular industries or locations, to ensure it works efficiently, before going nation-wide with it. Instead of this approach, the House bill would force all U.S. employers to comply with untested employee verification requirements without providing access to a single new worker.
‐Third, we should recognize the realities of global competitiveness and the need for the U.S. to attract the brightest from around the world by expanding the H1-B immigration program. As our economic growth depends more and more on the cutting-edge work of engineers, scientists, and other high-skilled professions, we also ought to make it as easy as possible for talented students to study in the U.S., and then staple a green card to their diploma and beg them to stay.
‐Fourth, we should bring as many of the estimated 11 million illegal individuals in this country out of the shadows as possible by allowing them a chance to undergo a security review, pay a significant fine, and continue working while they apply for legal status (applications which would be handled after the applications from those who have played by the rules).
This last issue has been the most vexing problem to solve. Many conservatives have argued that any legislation that allows people to do anything but depart the country is a form of amnesty. But here’s the uncomfortable truth: every day that we fail to pass comprehensive immigration reform is another day of amnesty by default. The numbers of illegal aliens living among us is so large, and they are so intertwined with our economy, schools, and society, that there is no way we can or should do without them. We failed for many decades to build an immigration system with any connection to reality: it is time to make the best of the situation we now face.
There is a compromise to be found. Any alien currently in the country illegally who can provide documentation that he has been gainfully employed since at least January 1, 2004, has no record of felonious criminal behavior or ties to terrorism, and is willing to pay a $1000 fine, should be allowed to remain in this country under a new guest-worker program. This legal status should extend for as long as it takes for their application for permanent residence to be processed, so long as he remains employed. Applications for guest-worker status would be submitted with the cooperation of an employer and would grant the worker a work-authorization card that includes embedded fingerprints to match the card to the worker.
Those who arrived more recently, have not had a consistent pattern of employment, or have a criminal record, should be required to depart the country or face a vastly enhanced fugitive operations program.
Now is the time finally to establish an immigration system that will work not only in 2006, but in 2020, instead of just trying to quiet the current political uproar. It is time to recognize that asking a Border Patrol agent to risk his life to detain a would-be carpenter with no criminal record fails any test of sensible risk management.
As the U.S. Senate takes up immigration reform, let’s build on the positives in the House bill: ending “catch and release,” creating a plan for a secure border, giving the Border Patrol the manpower and technology it needs. Beyond the post 9/11 border-enforcement improvements already made, the House bill would establish a robust enforcement capability. But that capability can only succeed if the underlying conditions that draw people to our country are recognized and accounted for. Let’s hope that the Senate will pass immigration legislation that reflects a comprehensive, effective, and realistic approach to protecting our country’s security, freedoms, economy, and unique identity.
– Stewart Verdery was assistant secretary of Homeland Security from 2003-2005 and is currently a principal at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti, Inc. and an adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.