President Bush’s new proposal on immigration has at least one virtue. It represents an effort to confront — and begin an open discussion about — an immigration system that is clearly not working. Whether you think immigration should be more restricted or less restricted, the fact that 8 million to 12 million people are in this country illegally suggests strongly that the current system is broken.
Could it be fixed with stronger enforcement or sending the National Guard to the border to back up the Border Patrol? Would it be economically productive or even feasible to find and deport 8 million people, most of whom are doing work somebody is willing to pay them for? Both of these alternatives strike us as unrealistic to the point of being utopian (or dystopian).
Our newspaper historically has endorsed relatively open borders, or policies as close to that position as are politically feasible. This would not preclude checking would-be immigrants for infectious diseases or membership in terrorist groups — indeed, a policy that welcomed most immigrants rather than trying to enforce unrealistically low quotas would make it more feasible to do so efficiently.
Would President Bush’s proposals move us modestly in the direction of reducing problems associated with immigration by liberalizing the system? The answer is yes, with some reservations.
It is doubtful that the proposal in its current form is likely to be passed this year or soon. The Washington Post paraphrases an unnamed “top House aide” to the effect that at least 50 Republicans will oppose the proposal and most Democrats will oppose it to avoid giving the president a perceived victory in an election year.
While the proposal undoubtedly has a political side — appealing to Hispanic voters in an election year — as Dan Griswold, director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Trade Policy Studies, said, “to say it’s pure politics is unduly cynical.”
President Bush since the early days of his administration has been interested in some kind of guest-worker program to regularize immigration, until 9/11 took discussion of immigration off the political plate. Moreover, the presence of 8 million to 12 million people who are outside the law and virtually unknowable to authorities is a genuine problem in an era when Americans worry about terrorism.
The heart of President Bush’s proposal is a temporary-worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to work legally for a three-year term that could be renewed. Workers now living in foreign countries could register on a government database to take jobs not filled by native-born Americans. The number of green cards granted each year would increase. The plan would also provide incentives such as tax-free savings accounts and retirement plan credits for temporary workers to be available when and if they return to their home countries.
We have concerns that a U.S. government database would bring the government more intrusively into private-sector hiring decisions. The retirement incentives look sketchy to us and could place more strains on a Social Security system already headed toward disaster.
The charge that this really is an “amnesty” program that rewards illegal behavior is overblown but not without merit. Unlike the amnesty program associated with immigration “reform” in the 1980s, the Bush proposal would not put illegals moved into the guest-worker program on a “fast track” to citizenship or even to permanent residency. Administration spokesmen say those who want to become citizens would have to line up with everybody else, with no preferences, and that the incentives to return to the home country would lead to more workers returning to Mexico than if no incentives are put in place.
Whether the Bush proposals would lead to more people returning to their home country is hard to tell. And while the presence of so many people without papers is in part the result of unrealistically low quotas, regularizing those people, even into a temporary program, does amount to a reward for illegal behavior.
We still don’t know all the details, and won’t until actual proposed legislation is sent to Congress. But the Bush proposal is at least an effort to reopen discussion on immigration. That’s not bad.