President Bush seems impaled on the false choice of appealing to the Hispanic vote or enforcing laws against illegal immigration. Politically, legally and morally there is no conflict — and there is a great deal of synergy — among these objectives.
Bush, searching for a way to recapture the national agenda, needs to seize this issue and make it his own. A full and reasoned program will galvanize national support and unite the nation behind tough measures to enforce our laws and maximize opportunities for those who already live here legally.
Bush needs to:
• Back the fence. Walls work. Just as the Israelis whose West Bank fence keeps terrorists out and has reduced terrorist attacks inside Israel to a fraction of their former number and intensity. Good fences make good neighbors and the United States should act to regularize the traffic of immigrants into the country by the kind of border control that only a well positioned fence can offer. This is no Great Wall of China seeking futilely to keep out the rest of the world. It would be a modern, high tech affair, spotting breaches and relaying the information to highly mobile border guard units to plug them up.
• Establish a legal guest-worker program. Nobody can deny the manifest need of Americans — both individuals and businesses — for the work that currently illegal immigrants provide. They would not be coming if they did not have access to jobs, and there would be no work if there were no demand.
Bush’s current program for legal guest workers is a good one and should be adopted in the context of broader immigration reform. But the plan should include a track to citizenship for these workers, providing certain criteria — such as English fluency, English literacy and no arrest record — to let them earn the right to become American citizens.
A guest-worker program will end the leper colony within our borders of disenfranchised, invisible illegals who have no rights and no responsibilities.
• Prosecute visa overstays. Half of the people who live here illegally entered the United States with legal visas and overstayed them. All 19 of the Sept. 11 hijackers came here under the law and then stayed on after their visas had expired (or should have been revoked because they did not attend school, having entered on student visas).
That we cannot rid our country of these illegal immigrants is hard to understand. We have their names, photos, fingerprints, addresses and phone numbers, but we do not deport them.
The main reason for their immunity is the lack of deportation judges and courts and the inadequate number of holding cells for detainees. Of the 160,000 people the United States arrested as illegal immigrants last year, 120,000 were released, without bail, back onto our streets. We need a massive expansion of judicial infrastructure to cope with the problems of illegal visa overstays.
President Clinton helped to lower the crime rate by doubling the prison space under his 1994 anti-crime bill. We need a commitment of similar magnitude.
• Regularize cash shipments home. A vital form of foreign aid for Mexico and the impoverished countries of Central America is the remittances sent each week by illegal immigrants to their families back home.
Last year, Mexican men working here sent $11 billion to their wives and children — the second leading source of foreign-currency earnings after oil for the nation. We need to regularize this flow of cash and provide immigrants with security, bank accounts and low-cost ways to send money home.
Combating illegal immigration need not smack of racism. It is important to all American citizens — Latinos and Anglos — and is in the national interest. But it is also in our interest to allow immigrants to come and settle here legally.
Immigration is keeping America young and vital. If not for the annual flow of 3 million people — about half legal and half illegal — we would be much like the nations of Europe, losing population and watching their populations age. But we cannot afford the current chaotic flow of immigrants over a theoretical border. We need to enforce the law and make it fair.
Morris is the author of Rewriting History, a rebuttal of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s (D-N.Y.) memoir, Living History.