Two years ago when Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., offered his best ideas for comprehensive immigration reform, one of the more controversial proposals was to require illegal immigrants to return their home country in order to obtain the necessary paperwork to legally work and live here.
Kyl and his allies were doing to their best to avoid having the dreaded label of “amnesty” attached to their plan, knowing the negative connotation of somehow rewarding those who had illegally crossed our borders was, and continues to be, the leading obstacle in fixing our dysfunctional immigration system. But critics suggested Kyl’s idea would be a silly exercise in having illegal immigrants fly to their home country, picked up a work visa at a U.S. embassy and return here in the same day. Rep. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., was among those who argued Congress shouldn’t bother with such machinations in pursuing immigration reform, and wrote for the Dallas Morning News in July 2005:
“Having a ‘return home’ policy may have some political appeal, but as a practical matter it is likely to simply delay enforcement of the new law. (The) bill contemplates a five-year period where illegal workers currently in the county could decide whether participate in a temporary worker program or continue to work in the shadows.”
So it was somewhat surprising that this “touchback” provision was included in Flake’s latest bipartisan reform proposal unveiled last week. Flake has correctly pointed out the U.S. doesn’t have the political will or financial resources to round up and deport an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants established in the U.S. So he has consistently suggested Congress should grant illegal immigrants permanent legal status after requiring them to pay a fine and back taxes, learn English, and wait at least six years for applications of legal immigrants to be handled first.
His latest measure continues this approach, although it also includes other necessary provisions for reform including additional resources to secure the borders, requiring employers to actively verify an employee’s eligibility to work through federal databases, and allowing up to 400,000 new work visas for low-skilled labor each year.
Flake’s press secretary, Matthew Specht, told us the congressman hopes the “touchback” provision will encourage other conservative Republicans to actively engage with Democrats on finally adopting immigration reform this year, instead of playing obstructionists as the Democrats did when they were in the minority.
But the “touchback” provision does nothing to mollify those who object to any accommodation for any illegal immigrant. Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, immediately called Flake’s new bill “a lawbreaker assistance program.”
Immigration reform that meets employment demands unfilled by the native U.S. workforce always will be derided by opponents with divisive and misleading labels. Rather than twisting itself into knots trying to avoid such attacks, Congress should find the political backbone to make the changes needed to protect this country while keeping our economy strong.