The Magazine

Can Immigration Reform Work?

A father of immigrants has a few practical questions.

May 22, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 34 • By LAWRENCE B. LINDSEY
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But there is a difference between bureaucratic slowness and rigidity and the complete breakdown of the process. In 2004 the INS issued 946,000 green cards and naturalized 537,000 people. The proposed immigration reform anticipates giving green cards to up to 11 million people in one fell swoop and making them eligible for citizenship six years later. It is inconceivable that the INS could handle an eleven-fold increase in its workload. Do we really intend to pass a bill that purports to document these 11 million people without setting up a system capable of providing them the promised documentation? If we don't, everyone else who is already here legally but needs a visa update, or has adopted a foreign-born child, or wants his aging mother to join him in America, will get swamped by the tsunami of newly legalized people seeking documentation.

Nor would this problem be easy to solve, even if Congress and the president were willing to budget for the flood of new work brought on by reform. Government bureaucrats require recruitment, background investigations by the Office of Personnel Management, training, and supervision by experienced personnel. Nearly four years after the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the government is still sorting out organizational tangles, and that was a mere merger of agencies, not a massive expansion.

Then there is the issue of software--a term that covers a host of troubles. The proposed law contemplates that those issued "guest worker" status will be allowed to apply for citizenship if they perform the normal functions of citizens: paying their taxes, not breaking the law, and so on. Are we going to link the new "Earned Citizenship" program computer to the IRS computer to make sure taxes have been paid? How is the new program going to link with hundreds of state and local law enforcement authorities to discover which individuals have been law abiding?

There will be horror stories along the way, even if a serious effort is made to make the program work. Some violent criminal will not have made it into the INS data base, providing fodder for anti-immigrant talk radio. Some name confusion will cause an exemplary resident to be deported, leading to cries of racism by activist groups. With so many political factions benefiting from the perception of failure, the current lack of forethought about these problems is stunning.

This brings us to a third practical reality: the need to create a certificate of legal residency that is actually worth something. The last immigration reform, the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986, theoretically requires that all employers check that the people they hire are here legally. Yet we have many millions of illegal workers, most of whom have arrived since that law was passed. Its gross ineffectiveness devalues the whole concept of playing by the rules.

To be credible, the new law must restore the value of the green card. The reform must make it harder to live in this country, receive its benefits, and get a job without a green card. That will require much tougher enforcement, both at the border and by employers. Once the country has a guest worker program that provides verifiable documentation to those who come here to work, why give driver's licenses or other benefits to individuals without documentation? Why not punish employers who hire undocumented workers? The whole idea of "comprehensive" immigration reform is to make the legal process credible again.

In theory, the "reform"-oriented Senate bill is supposed to be combined with an "enforcement"-oriented House bill in conference to produce "comprehensive" reform. But substantial parts of the "reform" coalition have no interest at all in "enforcement." This includes many of the advocacy groups who staged the recent demonstrations and some of their political supporters. It probably also includes many employer groups, who have no interest in sanctions, and have embraced the guest worker approach only as a means of dampening demands for tougher enforcement.

This has not created an environment conducive to compromise, and cynical moves to score partisan points have made matters worse. Even so, passing legislation will prove to be the easy part. Successfully implementing a new law will be much tougher.

THREE THINGS MUST HAPPEN for comprehensive reform to work. First, "the back of the line" for citizenship must really mean the back of the line. No newly legalized illegal should obtain citizenship before anyone who has already begun the application process. Second, substantial money, manpower, and management skills must be committed as soon as possible to implementing the new immigration procedures. The government must be candid with the public about the enormous magnitude of the effort it is about to undertake. Otherwise, the inevitable missteps will undermine citizens' and would-be immigrants' confidence in our seriousness about the rule of law. Third, the government must make enforcement credible. This may mean physical barriers to entry; it certainly requires stepped-up enforcement at workplaces and by dispensers of government services. Logic would dictate that enforcement, particularly at the border, begin even before all of the administrative apparatus is in place. At the very least, government should act to minimize the size of the problem it faces.

America seems to embark on a major immigration reform roughly every 20 years. The one in the 1960s reoriented immigration toward the Western Hemisphere, while promising to control entry. The one in the 1980s offered amnesty and a path to normalization, and again promised to restore the rule of law. Neither delivered on enforcement. As Congress contemplates its third effort, the credibility of the entire process is very much at stake. This time, one suspects the proverbial "three strikes" metaphor applies: If Washington fails to provide a comprehensive system that actually engenders respect for the rules, the rule of law will be damaged to such an extent that it may not recover. The next time the issue comes to the fore, the politics will not be pretty.

Lawrence B. Lindsey is president and CEO of the Lindsey Group and former chief economic adviser to President Bush.