Politics & Policy

One Step at a Time

A better bargain for immigration reform.

Sometimes, an ending is really just a beginning. Now that the Senate’s “Grand Bargain” to “reform” our dysfunctional immigration system has broken down, lawmakers can make a fresh start.

The time is right for substantive, practical reform. Luckily, this won’t require the immediate, radical, wrenching, “comprehensive” overhaul of our current system embodied in the Senate’s failed proposal. It can be done incrementally. Starting now.

After all, Congress has already passed security measures that — if implemented — would help make tremendous strides in getting the problem of illegal immigration under control. And the administration has ended its failed catch-and-release policy, which should allow it to clearly demonstrate that reasonable enforcement practices can be effective.

First, let’s look at what didn’t work.

The “Grand Bargain” collapsed under its own weight. The deal was unpopular because it would have granted amnesty to the 12 million (or more) individuals illegally in the United States and would have done little to secure the border, enforce the law, or facilitate lawful migration. A policy that insists on amnesty first and promises security and enforcement progress later is not only unpalatable to the American electorate, its unacceptable in a nation that values rule of law and lives in a dangerous world.

Rather than revive the comprehensive approach — or worse, doing nothing — lawmakers should embrace a simple strategy based on four basic points:

Enforce the laws. There already exist on the books numerous laws that, if enforced in a reasonable and targeted manner, would discourage illegal immigration and the employment of illegal labor. Lawbreakers must be deterred, and law-abiding Americans must be reassured, that Congress and the administration are completely serious about enforcing our laws. Recent actions by the administration prove that reasonable enforcement measures (well short of massive deportations) can significantly reduce the number of illegal border crossings. Continued crackdowns on businesses that have hired hundreds and sometimes thousands of illegals would also help government regain credibility in this area.

Regain control of the southern border. Many of the border-security provisions of the Senate proposal are already being implemented. After all, they were required when earlier congresses passed legislation such as the Secure Fences Act of 2006 and the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004. These on-the-books security initiatives should continue, and be fully funded.

Emphasize legal immigration. The U.S. should welcome those who abide by immigration laws and deny entry and advantages to those who violate the law. The process for entering the country legally must be fair, orderly and efficient, and that’s surely not the case now. Congress should act to enhance and protect the integrity of the legal-immigration process, so that provides a meaning naturalization experience on the path to citizenship.

Create flexible legal opportunities to work in the United States. A well-constructed temporary worker program — one that provides a rotating temporary workforce to meet the market-driven demand for labor — would both diminish the incentives for illegal immigration and provide an additional option for legal entry.

Along with other reforms, a temporary-worker program would gradually reduce the number of illegal aliens in the country. This would improve our national security while meeting the needs of a growing economy.

This realistic, four-point strategy can be implemented quickly. Since many of the tools for tightening border security and workplace enforcement have already been enacted and authorized, Congress need only fill in the missing components. Rather than draft another mammoth and unwieldy comprehensive bill, lawmakers should enact, piecemeal, a few nonpartisan measures consistent with broadly accepted principles and public opinion.

Absent serious policy change, the illegal population in the United States will continue to grow, the burden on local communities will increase, the stresses on civil society will become greater, and border security will become more expensive while remaining just as ineffective.

On the other hand, with a handful of initiatives, Congress and an administration working to implement existing and new national security and immigration laws could achieve a de facto comprehensive solution reasonably quickly. That would unfold a future far brighter than the one the United States faces now.

Rejecting amnesty, though, is the key — not the obstacle — to policy success.

Securing a future where America’s borders are no longer porous, its laws are respected, and illegal labor is replaced by legal workers and legal immigrants is an achievable objective. The way forward is not to repeat the failures of the past but to pursue an incremental strategy of modest — but very real — reforms.

Matthew Spalding is director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies, and James Jay Carafano, is assistant director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies and senior research fellow for national-security and homeland security in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.


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