The Magazine

Law and Borders

From the February 28, 2005 issue: The conservative case for Bush's immigration plan.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By TAMAR JACOBY
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EVEN MORE IMPORTANT would be the dividends for national security. Hundreds of thousands of foreigners enter the country each year without benefit of background checks or security controls of any kind. Then, once in the United States, they cluster in transient, underground communities, as often as not beyond the reach of the law. The president understands that we must come to grips with these potential terrorist havens, eliminating not just the illegal arrivals but also the illicit population that has accumulated here in recent decades. That's why he has included a provision that would allow unauthorized migrants to come in out of the shadows and get visas. Though mocked as a spineless, soft-hearted giveaway, this part of the plan too is driven by our needs--our security needs.

Under the Bush plan, foreigners seeking to disguise their identities would no longer find fake ID cards readily available on street corners in every American city. The Department of Homeland Security would have a much better grasp of who is here and what their names are and where to look for them if they turn up on an international watch list. Agents like Lee Morgan would be able to get back to their real jobs: tracking criminals and terrorists, not farmhands and busboys. And all this could be achieved without a draconian crackdown of the kind we would need were we to enforce the quotas we have, let alone close the border. Far simpler to bring the law back into line with market reality, then implement the new rules with modest, commonsense enforcement measures of the sort we rely on in every other realm of American life.

But isn't what the critics say true--isn't the president's plan in fact an amnesty? Not necessarily. It depends how it's done. Illegal immigrants should not be forgiven for breaking the rules; they should be offered an opportunity to earn their way back onto the right side of the law. Think of it as probation--that all-American idea, a second chance. The president is unequivocal: Unauthorized workers will not be permitted to jump the queue ahead of legal applicants waiting patiently for visas back in their home countries. And Congress should add other conditions. Those already in the country illegally should be required to pay a penalty; they should have to wait just as long as other applicants for full legal status. While they're waiting, they should be required to fulfill a variety of additional obligations: hold a job, pay taxes, abide by the law, take English classes, and demonstrate their commitment to American values. Once they've met these terms, it might even make sense to require them to go home to pick up their visas.

The vetting alone is sure to be a huge job, and it will have to be done with the utmost care on the part of law enforcement. But the truth is there's no other realistic way to eliminate the vast illegal world these immigrants inhabit: no other way to clear the ground in order to build for the future with a realistic, legal system of the kind the president envisions. After all, we as a nation aren't going to deport 10 to 12 million foreigners. However much they dislike the idea of illegal immigration, the American people aren't likely to have the stomach for that. Nor would it ultimately be in our interest. Surely it makes more sense to retain these trained, already assimilating workers than it does to send them home and start over with people who know nothing of the United States or its ways.

DOES THIS MEAN it may be possible to bridge the gap between the president and his conservative critics? Well, yes and no. The critics are right about many things. Our current "nudge, nudge, wink, wink" policy is unacceptable. The erosion of the rule of law cannot continue. We must secure our borders against terrorists. The critics are also right to be worried about the costs that even legal immigrants impose on social services--primarily schools and hospitals--in the communities where they settle. Any overhaul of the immigration system must deal with those costs, and it ought to include a set of provisions, both carrots and sticks, to encourage assimilation. About all of that, there can be no doubt. The only catch: Just think a minute about this list of concerns. In fact, what the critics find intolerable is not the president's plan; it's the status quo.

The Bush package acknowledges the critics' concerns and attempts to address them with realistic solutions. It's designed to serve America's economic interest. It's our only hope of ending the hypocrisy that undermines our law enforcement. It's the best way to restore the rule of law in our workplaces and enhance security on the border. Issues of assimilation and local service costs are among the practical matters still to be thought through--on the table for Congress to tackle as it writes the legislation to implement the president's plan. But surely eliminating the barriers that now prevent 10 to 12 million U.S. residents from participating in the body politic and requiring them to pay their full freight in taxes would be a good start on both problems. And this can be accompanied by other, more proactive strategies like mandatory health savings accounts for guest workers and incentives for employers to offer them English classes.

Where the critics are most wrong--where they seem most shrewd but are ultimately the most misguided--is in their view of the politics of immigration. Here, too, they see the symptoms accurately enough. Americans are frustrated and angry. They know the system is broken; they want change. Uncertainty about just how to effect that change is driving a wedge into the Republican party, dividing the president from his conservative base in Congress and at the grassroots. And if the system isn't fixed, it could create a dangerous opening for Democrats: an opportunity for Democratic immigration hawks to outflank Republicans, not just on law and order, but even more devastatingly on security. All of this is true--and scary. But the answer isn't to block reform. The antidote is to deliver a remedy, as the White House proposes.

The president isn't misreading public opinion. If anything, he reads it better than his critics do. Most Americans aren't anti-immigrant. As poll after poll shows, what they want is to regain control--of both the border and the underground economy. The paradox at the heart of the Bush plan makes it a little hard to explain to voters. The president is promising to regain control by means of a more generous and welcoming approach to immigration. But that doesn't change the underlying truth: The Bush plan is the only way to restore the rule of law, either on the border or in our communities. It's the best answer to the critics' complaints, the only answer to the illegality that plagues us. And surely--no matter what the skeptics say--it can't be political suicide to give voters a solution to one of the problems that frightens and disturbs them most.

Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.