By Thomas Baranick
Immigration was a hot topic during the recent election season. Even those running for dog catcher seemed compelled to state a position.
Arguments on this issue often have been so convoluted and disingenuous that in the Arizona Senate race, we had Sen. John McCain endorsing Sen. Jon Kyl, while Kyl has strongly criticized Democratic opponent Jim Pederson’s immigration position, which was remarkably similar to McCain’s.
In this environment, I thought it would be helpful for readers to hear the thoughts of someone who has been on the front lines of immigration enforcement for more than 30 years in Arizona and in locations throughout the country.
TIME FOR ACTION
In 1991, the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service celebrated its 100th anniversary. The theme was “Keepers of the Dream.” That dream was for legal immigrants to continue to find freedom and opportunity in America.
It was recognized that keeping that dream alive required an enforcement component. Strong enforcement would prevent massive illegal immigration and fraud, and provide the necessary credibility to have continued strong support by Americans for legal immigration. The lack of credibility led to the demise of INS, and it continues in large-scale disregard for immigration law by American business. It has led some American cities to direct police to ignore immigration violations. When law enforcement agencies do this, how can you expect others to act differently?
“Comprehensive” immigration reform, which includes legalization for the current illegal population and a large guest worker program, is supported by many politicians and many in the mainstream media. Its weakness is that it adds no credibility to immigration law that would be respected either by foreign nationals, intent on violating the law in the future, or the American public.
If we fail to instill credibility to our immigration system, we run the strong risk of an increasingly angry American public supporting even more restrictive measures than are out there right now. It happened before, when Congress passed very restrictive legislation in the 1920s after the great waves of immigration at the turn of the 20th century. It is not enough to say, “Immigrants built this country.” Things change. Witness the changes wrought by 9/11.
Americans are a compassionate people, but there is strong evidence that they have trouble reconciling a grant of legal status to more than 12 million people who entered the country illegally, despite a variety of requirements that proponents of “comprehensive” reform argue makes it “earned legalization.”
What makes this fundamentally unfair in the minds of many is these illegal immigrants get to stay here while they “earn” legalization, while those millions who have patiently waited on legal visa lists must wait abroad for years for their number to be called. This only reinforces the idea that illegal entry might eventually be rewarded, while those who follow the legal path are chumps.
I can tell you from my own experience that every time the president or a top administration official mentions legalization or a guest worker program, a surge of illegal entries follows. The illegal population is also the source of continued funding to smugglers to bring in relatives. Legalization will not stop this, but only encourage it, unless it is clear that strong enforcement measures will be put in place to prevent this.
A guest worker program that permits a large-scale admission of workers, plus their families, and provides for legal adjustment to permanent residency as does the 2005 Senate bill is not a temporary worker program but an adjunct permanent legal immigration program. It will keep businesses asking constantly for more of these workers as they regularly depart for better jobs.
LACK OF RESOURCES
The solution is “comprehensive,” just not the comprehensive that McCain, R-Ariz., Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and President Bush are talking about. What is needed is comprehensive enforcement. Those who say enforcement has been tried and failed are absolutely wrong. It has never been tried with any conviction or enthusiasm. While control of our southern border is vital, enforcement that will work is much more than more Border Patrol agents on our borders or fences. Up to 40 percent of illegal immigrants are legal visitors who have violated their visas. The 9/11 hijackers fall into this group.
You can be certain that any immigration legislation that contains both an earned legalization and guest worker program will see those two components go forward, but when it comes to enforcement, corporate and special interests will try to apply pressure to slow it down or even halt or modify it. This is my experience of more than 30 years in the field.
In the last six years of my career as a director for Detention and Deportation in Arizona, I begged for resources to be able to respond to local law enforcement and to support and complement the Border Patrol. I never received the resources to adequately do the job. Only in this election year did resources come forward for interior enforcement. This is the same pattern for both major parties. Will this interest in enforcement last into next year?
Comprehensive enforcement includes not only firm control of our borders, but also a strong interior enforcement commitment. The single most important thing that can be done is mandatory verification of a person’s legal status in the workplace and when vital public services are involved. This can be done through a biometric Social Security card for all U.S. residents. Thus, an employer could no longer claim lack of knowledge of a person’s authorization for employment by asserting he didn’t know the documents presented were fraudulent. The employer would be required to verify the employee’s status with the government through this biometric card.
A similar approach would be taken for public benefits including driver licenses. Access to Social Security information would be available to federal immigration enforcement agencies. Of all the tools to control illegal immigration, the head of the Border Patrol Union ranks mandatory employee verification at the top.
While the Bush administration could have emphasized employer enforcement and verification as the key ingredient in their immigration proposals, they continue instead to emphasize a guest worker program as key to illegal immigration control. This is what makes me skeptical of their long-term commitment to enforcement.
You are not going to control illegal immigration by using a guest worker program where demand will always exceed authorized numbers. This is equivalent of the police telling a local community plagued by home break-ins that the problem could be solved if only home owners would keep their doors and windows unlocked. To reform immigration and to have programs such as guest workers, you must first firmly control all illegal immigration.
LESSONS FROM THE PAST
Finally, what do we do with the 11 million to 20 million illegal immigrants? We have to get past this issue, but ensure that a similar population never replicates itself by implementing strong comprehensive enforcement measures. Rather than putting this population on the road to citizenship, and a vastly superior footing to those waiting for legal visas abroad, they could be placed in an indefinite temporary protected status with employment authorization.
This is a status that has been used in the past to permit residents of foreign countries ravaged by political unrest or natural disasters to remain in the U.S. until the situation in their home countries change.
This would also give the U.S. government an opportunity to document the actual number of illegal immigrants present and to separate out those with criminal or undesirable backgrounds. In 1986, the government estimated 1 million illegal immigrants, yet 3 million were granted amnesty.
This would bring these people forward, yet not give them a huge advantage over those who have and are following legal channels. It would also not grant them the ability to sponsor a family member abroad for immigration, until they obtained formal legal status through a separate process that could be authorized by Congress in the future when the facts about this illegal population were known.
Any guest worker programs of unskilled labor would be strictly temporary, no family members, no adjustment to permanent residence, and limited in number to help a handful of industries that have been addicted to illegal labor, until they could make the adjustment to the realties of a new immigration system and the impact of a strong employee verification program is properly assessed.
So there is the plan. A combination of strong, realistic enforcement measures, and a compromise to deal with the existing illegal population that is not wildly unfair to those who have and are playing by the rules. The continued support of the American public for viable legal immigration requires such an approach.
- Thomas Baranick served for almost 34 years in federal immigration service. He was a regional director for Detention and Deportation for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and retired in 2005 as deputy field office director for Detention and Removal Operations in Phoenix for Immigration and Customs Enforcement,