Politics & Policy

How to Fix Illegal Immigration in Five Steps without Building a Wall

Crossing the U.S.-Mexican border in Arizona, 2011. (John Moore/Getty)
But we should build some walls, too.

Beware the bundler. I don’t mean the political fundraiser (though those guys can be pretty shady, too) but the lawmaker, the guy who insists that every issue is related to every other issue and that the only solution is a grand “comprehensive” bipartisan compromise resulting in a generation-defining piece of legislation that’s 8,000 pages long.

Consider the question of illegal immigration.

No, not the question of immigration — illegal immigration. There’s a temptation to bundle those together, because we have problems with our legal immigration regime, too, but the more tightly we tie them together, the more closely we bind ourselves to “solutions” that aren’t. With illegal immigration, we won’t get 100 percent of the way there with five reforms, but we might get 92 percent of the way there.

One: Enact a law that does one thing: prohibit people who have entered the United States illegally from applying for citizenship — even if their current status is legal. If you ever have entered the United States illegally, you don’t ever become a citizen.

Two: Enact a law that does one thing: prohibit people who have entered the United States illegally from applying for a work permit — even if their current status is legal. If you ever have entered the United Sates illegally, you don’t ever get a work permit.

That’s your firewall against amnesty. Vote against those laws, and you’re voting for amnesty; vote to repeal them down the line, you’re voting for amnesty. This creates good political incentives in Washington and removes bad incentives among those who come here illegally expecting that their status eventually will be made legal.

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Three: work-place enforcement. That means universal, mandatory E-Verify (or an equivalent system), with a database that actually works. At the same time, redefine the legal responsibilities of employers: Rather than facing civil and criminal penalties for knowingly hiring an illegal, they should face civil and criminal penalties for failing to verify the legal status of an employee. While immigration is inherently a federal issue, there is no reason there could not be state and local laws against hiring illegals, and no reason those laws should not include big fines and asset forfeiture, a legal penalty that is sometimes abused but which is appropriate in the case of what is largely an economic crime. If Bubba’s Landscaping loses a truck every time it gets busted using illegal day labor, or you lose your restaurant for hiring illegal dishwashers, you’re going to start being more scrupulous.

#share#Four: Harassment. Put a C (citizen) or an N (noncitizen) on driver’s licenses and state identification cards. We don’t need a national identification card. But most states already require documentation of your legal status under the REAL ID Act, and among states that will issue IDs to illegals (California, for example), it is common for those licenses to have a distinguishing mark. (Republicans at the state level also should work to prohibit the issuing of state IDs to illegal immigrants categorically.) We should require certain regulated businesses — especially banks, check-cashing companies, and those offering electronic fund transfers — to require noncitizens to document their legal status when making certain transactions that routinely require a photo ID, such as cashing a check, sending a wire transfer, boarding a domestic flight, renting a hotel room, etc. This places no new burdens on citizens, minimal burdens on businesses, and very light burdens on legally present aliens. This won’t prevent visa overstays entirely, but it will make overstaying a much less attractive proposition.

Five: Enact a law that does one thing: prohibit people who have entered the United States illegally from ever being legally permitted to enter the country.

And, do: nothing.

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Not nothing, exactly. There’s a great deal more to be done: border fencing, where appropriate (not everybody who crosses the border is looking for a job), and other measures where fencing doesn’t make sense; developing a real entry-exit control system; developing a real entry-visa screening system for security threats, one that looks more like Palantir and less like Skippy the FBI Intern calling your high-school principal. And then there’s the question of legal immigration. Those are big, long-term, complicated, expensive reforms — reforms that we are going to have to make.

But that should not stop us from doing simple, sensible things right now.

#related#Our debate over immigration proceeds as though there were some sudden urgency to do something about the illegals already present. Their presence is a problem — we do, after all, purport to be a nation of laws — but it isn’t a new problem. Some of them have been here for decades. Some on the right talk as though it is an absolute national imperative to deport every one of them — yesterday — while some on the left insist that we have a pressing moral duty to normalize their status. I’m not convinced that we have a duty to do that at all, and I’m absolutely sure that we don’t have to do it right this minute. Reverse those bad incentives, get a little bit mean on work-place enforcement, interrupt their economic lives, and let’s see what happens next. We don’t have to do everything at once.

Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.

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