Republicans in the U.S. House sent a powerful message last week that Washington has finally heard the outraged cries of average Americans who want a serious campaign to stop illegal immigration and to close the nation’s borders to drug smugglers and potential terrorists.
Unfortunately, that’s the most significant value of the immigration "reform" package approved Dec. 16 — as a symbolic message. Even most Republican sponsors of the bill admit their plan wouldn’t work in its present form, because it fails to deal with an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already living in the U.S. or the economy’s clear need for additional workers.
But House leaders wanted to deliver a "get-tough" immigration bill before Christmas. That meant avoiding any discussion of a guest-worker program — the most contentious issue in this arena that has sharply divided many Republican loyalists from President Bush and other party leaders.
Business lobbyists and immigrant-rights advocates argue the House failed to lead responsibly when a majority of lawmakers know foreign guest-workers must be part of any reform package that reaches Bush’s desk. Mexican President Vicente Fox has angrily criticized a prosposal to build nearly 700 miles of twin fences.
Still, the House bill sets several benchmarks for the Senate to keep in mind when that chamber starts work on its own version of immigration reform in early February. Improving border security will require new physical barriers to slow the overwhelming numbers of people illegally crossing and advanced surveillance technology to help border agents detect migrants in remote areas.
And Republicans must set aside traditional alliances with business interests to finally hold employers accountable for their hiring practices. Immigrant control advocates are rightly angry that employer sanction cases have dropped from 417 in 1999 to just three in the last fiscal year, as reported in August by the Government Accountability Office.
Proposals for a guest-worker program will have to be carefully crafted to avoid exploiting those workers or driving down wages of U.S.-born employees. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., points out a whole new program might not be needed, as the U.S. already has dozens of temporary visa programs that potentially could be modified and expanded to attract the low-skill labor needed for agriculture, construction and hospitality industries.
But new legal methods must be established for migrants to enter the U.S., or illegal immigration will continue no matter how many border agents we hire or how many walls we build.
The House has proven it can get tough on immigration. Early next year, look for the Senate to get real.