Politics & Policy

No to Bush-Kennedy

“The fight over legalization, or ‘amnesty,’ is all but over,” exults the Manhattan Institute’s Tamar Jacoby, and the “yahoos” who oppose it have been routed. She is right about who has won, at least as far as the Senate is concerned. The Bush-Kennedy immigration “reform,” which is now expected to win broad bipartisan support in that chamber, provides legal status for an estimated 12 million illegal aliens. In exchange for the massive, unpopular amnesty, Senator Kennedy is willing to engage in a little “border dressing” that purports to beef up enforcement of current laws barring illegal entry and the employment of illegal workers. As in the past, supporters of border and workplace enforcement will get the rhetoric, illegal aliens the prize, and taxpayers the huge tab.

The 1986 immigration reform, with amnesty provisions that were implemented and enforcement provisions that weren’t, is instructive. But there is no need to hark back 20 years to illustrate the bad faith of “comprehensive” immigration reformers. Before last year’s elections, the Secure Fence Act, providing for the construction of a 700-mile fence at the southern border, handily passed Congress. In this week’s Republican presidential debate, Rep. Duncan Hunter, the fence bill’s House sponsor, angrily noted, “We have $1 billion cash on hand at the Department of Homeland Security right now for building the border fence. . . . They have done two miles. I think they want to drag their feet and hook this up with amnesty.” They do and they now have.

The Bush administration’s price for its modestly beefed-up border security and workplace enforcement is amnesty for millions and a temporary-worker program for a few hundred thousand more each year. And the proposal’s conservative features vanish upon inspection.

Bush-Kennedy includes some enforcement “triggers” that increase resources at the border and establish an employment-verification program before amnesty or the new temporary-worker program can take effect. But there is no requirement that these measures be proved effective before the full implementation of Kennedy’s wish list, and the reform does not include critical provisions to prevent identity theft and the use of fraudulent documents. Granting amnesty to millions of illegal aliens without first securing the border and ensuring a reliable system of workplace enforcement invites millions of others to follow their example in the hope of being granted amnesty during the inevitable next round of immigration reform.

The proposal contemplates ending “chain migration” by extended family members in favor of a merit system based on needed skills — eventually. The current waiting lists for family members must first be eliminated, and immigration advocates can be expected to aggressively lobby for the status quo. Tamar Jacoby is already arguing against moving to merit. Not even yahoos will be fooled by the bill’s empty promise.

Finally, the enormous cost of granting legal status to millions of illegal aliens is being wholly ignored. Nearly two-thirds of illegal immigrants are low-skilled workers. Based on a detailed analysis of the net cost of low-skill households, Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation estimates that the typical illegal-alien household receives $19,588 more in benefits than it pays in taxes each year. He explains that these costs would increase dramatically when an illegal alien reached retirement. Rector estimates that if all current illegal aliens were granted amnesty, the net retirement costs (benefits minus taxes) could be over $2.5 trillion.

As bad as the status quo on immigration policy is, it is preferable to this bill. Recent improvements in border security have apparently reduced the number of illegal crossings, and well-publicized raids on workplaces can be expected to have a chilling effect on employers who are in violation of immigration laws. But we suspect that this increased enforcement was largely designed to win passage for amnesty and a guest-worker program, and will end once this goal is achieved. We urge senators to cast protest votes against this bill, and House members to do their best to defeat it.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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