Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Should the White House Do More to Legalize America's Undocumented Aliens? YES: We Need Reform That Rewards Work, Respects Market Forces and Rebuilds Public Confidence in Our Immigration System

Magazine article Insight on the News

Q: Should the White House Do More to Legalize America's Undocumented Aliens? YES: We Need Reform That Rewards Work, Respects Market Forces and Rebuilds Public Confidence in Our Immigration System

Article excerpt

Byline: Frank Sharry, SPECIAL TO INSIGHT

President George W. Bush did something on Jan. 7 that most politicians fear to do: speak honestly about the controversial and complex challenge of bringing immigration policy into line with reality. He no doubt expected the flurry of criticism from both flanks, and I suspect most of his political counselors advised him to avoid a topic that generates more heat than light, especially among voters counted on to secure his re-election later this year.

Nevertheless, he stood up in the East Room of the White House and unflinchingly described a system so fundamentally broken that hardworking immigrants seeking the American Dream are considered lawbreakers, growth-producing U.S. employers are vilified even as they have been turned into quasi-governmental enforcement agents, and the U.S. Border Patrol spends most of its time trying to "keep America safe" from those who help pick America's food, help care for America's children and help grow America's economy.

The president got the diagnosis right, even if his prescription falls short in a number of crucial areas. But first the kudos, and later the criticism. Bush gets the big picture: Our immigration system is in desperate need of being fixed; comprehensive reform must deal with both undocumented immigrants already here as well as the future flow of immigrants coming to fill available jobs; and a more realistic set of limits in line with market realities, combined with more targeted enforcement strategies, will indeed result in improved border security and controls.

Moreover, the president, along with an array of leaders from Alan Greenspan to leaders of the American labor movement to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, understands the convergence of economic and demographic forces that make immigration a critical aspect of our economic competitiveness in the 21st century: Americans are aging and having fewer children, who are also better educated than ever, and almost half the jobs in the U.S. economy call more for a commitment to hard work than a great deal of formal education. That raises the question, just who is going to fill the agricultural and service jobs in the America of the future? In many places, any working mother, hotel employer, restaurateur, nursing-home operator or farmer already knows the answer.

Opponents of immigration reform make the argument that if we just enforced the current laws, illegal immigration would be reduced. This sounds like a perfectly sensible argument except that it ignores the last decade of failure. During the 1990s a Republican Congress and a Democratic president threw billions of dollars and thousands of new federal law-enforcement agents at the problem of illegal immigration. The Border Patrol grew from 2,000 agents to 12,000 agents. The immigration-enforcement budget increased fourfold to some $6 billion. A range of strategies have been aggressively implemented including employer sanctions, increased border patrols, streamlined deportations, workplace raids and reduced access to basic public services.

The result? The biggest crackdown on unauthorized migration in our history coincided with the biggest increase in the size of the undocumented immigrant population. Some 9 million immigrants without legal immigration papers live in the Unite States, and another 350,000 arrive each year. Meanwhile, workers in the shadows are vulnerable to exploitation; decent employers too often are undercut by unscrupulous competitors; and the black market in migration has led to a huge underground trade in false documents, a $10 billion-a-year human-trafficking industry increasingly controlled by crime syndicates, and 2,000 deaths at the border during the last five years.

What's needed are reforms that are pro-growth, pro-enforcement and pro-assimilation. The last decade has demonstrated a compelling fact of life: No amount of border and immigration enforcement can work without recognizing the reality that the U. …

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