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Good Idea, Bad Plan

Why the president's immigration plan won't work.

11:00 PM, Jan 13, 2004 • By FRED BARNES
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THERE ARE TWO THINGS to be said about President Bush's new plan for dealing with illegal immigrants. The first is that the plan reflects a beautiful sentiment. Immigrants slip into the United States illegally for all the right reasons. They want to find jobs, raise families, and decide their own destiny. They enrich America with their energy and their enthusiasm for freedom. This country would be far worse off without them.

The second thing to say about the Bush plan? It won't work. It doesn't stand a chance for two reasons. Illegal immigrants who would get special working permits for three years are never going back to their home countries. And the existence of a reward for illegally coming to America, namely the working permit, is bound to spur unlawful immigration, not curtail it.

In Mexico on Monday, Bush insisted he "expects that most temporary workers will eventually return permanently to their home countries." But why would they? Once they've held a job and received some of the benefits of American citizenship--such as a driver's license and the right to travel freely back and forth to their native country--they aren't likely to leave here willingly. The blessings of America are simply too attractive, the life too comfortable. It would defy human nature for them to migrate home voluntarily.

Nor would they be deported. At the moment, there are 8 million illegal immigrants in this country. So far as I can tell, there is no concerted effort by the Immigration and Naturalization Service to toss them out. Sure, the Border Patrol has been beefed up and more illegal immigrants are stopped at the border. But once they're in, they're pretty much left alone by authorities. Obviously the INS could find many of them if it wanted to. It doesn't. The job is too big and deportation too brutal a process.

The only exception is if illegal immigrants are seen as potential terrorists. But this applies to only a tiny number of immigrants and many of them are here legally (or at least they entered the country legally and then stayed after their visa expired). Most illegal immigrants come from Mexico or Central America and aren't terrorist threats. Getting them to leave is an extremely low priority for authorities. The bottom line is: We don't throw out many illegal immigrants anymore.

As for luring more illegal immigrants, the Bush plan would make America an even more lovely destination than it already is. As things stand now, illegal immigrants pay Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes with little hope of participating in those programs in their elderly years. Nor can they get drivers' licenses or green cards. But the Bush plan would change all that.

Consider how the proposed plan would be seen by a poor but ambitious young man in Mexico. He knows that getting in line for legal immigration would probably never get him to America and that staying in the United States on an illegal basis has its drawbacks. But now there's a legal alternative: Get across the border, find a job (a menial, entry level job will do), and sign up for a 3-year work permit that's renewable. This is quite an incentive. If the Bush plan passes, word will spread fast that now's the time to get to the United States any way you can.

AGAIN, let's applaud the thinking that underpins the Bush plan. And let's praise illegal immigrants for their moxie in getting here and making America a better country. But let's not have any illusions about the practical impact of the plan, which is that more will come and few will leave.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.