Special Report

Heed Pence-Hutchison

Only one congressional plan can break the illegal immigration logjam.

By 8.11.06

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A group of nine suspected illegal immigrants died and 12 were injured in a car crash while fleeing federal agents on Tuesday, in what has become the latest gruesome reminder of the necessity of immigration reform. The accident occurred in Yuma, Arizona, where only three months earlier President Bush made the case for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Thankfully, a proposed compromise gaining attention in Washington offers hope for securing our borders, reducing illegal immigration, and meeting the needs of our growing economy.

The plan put forward by Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, both Republicans, on July 25th, would allow Mexicans and Central Americans to enter the United States through a temporary worker program. Workers here illegally now would need to leave the country and apply for re-entry. The program would be administered by private companies operating "Ellis Island Centers" outside the country.

The compromise has already won encouraging words from President Bush, and it could bridge the gap between a comprehensive immigration reform plan that passed the Senate in May and an enforcement-only bill passed by the House last December. The Pence-Hutchison plan would cut the Gordian knot of objections to "amnesty" by requiring that workers leave the country and re-enter legally after a short period of time rather than legalizing them while they are here.

Critics of comprehensive reform claim that Congress already tried legalization in the 1980s and it didn't work. But the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 failed in large part because it did not include an expanded channel for workers to enter the country legally. It legalized 2.7 million workers who were already here, but because it did not expand the opportunity for new workers to enter legally, the pool of illegal workers just began to fill up again.

IRCA did dramatically ramp up enforcement, but without true reform, it was doomed to fail, and it has. In the past two decades, the U.S. government has increased spending on border enforcement ten-fold and actual agent-hours at the border by a factor of eight. It has built miles of walls into the desert, raided hundreds of workplaces and arrested thousands of illegal workers, and yet, there are now 12 million living inside our borders.

Pence and Hutchison recognize that any immigration reform worthy of the name must meet the legitimate needs of our growing economy for additional workers. The U.S. economy continues to create hundreds of thousands of jobs each year for low-skilled workers in important sectors such as construction, hospitality, retail, and food preparation. At the same time, the number of Americans ready to fill such jobs continues to shrink as our population gets older and better educated. Yet our immigration system provides no legal channel for peaceful, hard-working neighbors to enter our country even temporarily to fill this gap in the labor market.

The existing House bill ignores this reality in another misguided attempt to enforce an unenforceable law. The bill's enforcement provisions, which include a $1.4 billion, 700-mile wall along the Mexican border, would only divert the flow of workers further into the desert, driving up smuggling fees and the number of dead bodies found along the border each year. In contrast, the compromise plan would allow needed workers to enter the country legally through established ports of entry, allowing border enforcement personnel to focus their time and resources on intercepting real criminals and terrorists instead of would-be janitors and construction workers.

The one critical flaw of the compromise plan is its provision to delay any temporary worker program until the president has declared our borders to be "secure." This is a recipe for frustration. As the past two decades prove, enforcement alone will not solve the problem of illegal immigration. Reform of our immigration laws, including creation of a temporary worker program, must be an integral part of securing our border. Congress should bolster border enforcement and allow greater numbers of workers to enter the country simultaneously.

By accomplishing both objectives, the Pence-Hutchison plan could break the logjam over illegal immigration. The compromise would replace illegal immigration with legal immigration without granting 1986-style amnesty to illegal workers already in the country. If the Republican Congress fails to pass real immigration reform, it will be repeating the mistakes of the past while perpetuating illegal immigration and chaos on our borders. Enacting successful reforms will be difficult, but as we saw on Tuesday in Yuma, failure comes at a terrible cost.

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About the Author

Daniel Griswold is director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington.