As a nation of immigrants, we believe that all humans should have a chance to work their way toward a better life. We acknowledge that the U.S. cannot take in billions of poor people from around the world, but we want it to be as generous as possible in the numbers it will accept.
This sympathetic attitude may be a reason to expand our quotas for legal immigrants after an open, public discussion about how much immigration is good for our country. But it should not make us tolerate the presence of millions of illegal immigrants.
These unfortunate people inhabit an underworld in which they must buy and use forged documents to obtain work. They are vulnerable to mistreatment and exploitation by unscrupulous employers and labor contractors who know that illegal workers are unlikely to complain to authorities.
Most are low-skilled workers who compete for jobs open to low-skilled native workers, thereby driving down the wages and benefits for these jobs. This only worsens the already serious economic inequality in our country.
The U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have each passed immigration reform bills that are starkly different and will be hard to reconcile. The House bill (HR 4437) is exclusively about enforcement and increased penalties. The Senate bill (S. 2611) contains a guest worker program and amnesty provisions for most illegal immigrants here now.
If House and Senate conferees cannot reconcile the two bills, we face the prospect of a continuation of the current crisis. That would be ironic, since the federal government already has tools in hand that would greatly reduce the illegal population. Enforcement of existing laws would turn this crisis into a manageable nuisance.
In 1986 Congress enacted the Immigration Reform and Control Act. It included a ban on hiring illegal immigrants and an amnesty for 2.7 million illegals.
But the ban became unworkable because Congress refused to require a mandatory verification system for employers to check on the status of job seekers. Business lobbies and immigrant rights groups successfully beat back attempts by the government to detect the presence of illegal employees.
Since 1986, there have been six more amnesties for illegal immigrants, and continuing lax enforcement. The word is out around the world: if you can get into the United States somehow, you can stay indefinitely.
Illegal immigrants will not want to stay here unless they can find jobs. Enforcement of existing law would prevent them from finding jobs. So they would go home. Why hasn't this happened?
Part of the answer is political pressure exerted by business lobbies whose members badly want cheap, submissive workers who will take what they can get in wages.
Another part is pressure from immigrant rights groups. Because of their close ties to immigrant communities with both legal and illegal members, they are likely to resist enforcement measures that make life harder for illegal immigrants living in their midst.
Many in the Democratic and Republican parties are reluctant to offend a Hispanic community whose numbers make them increasingly powerful at the ballot box.
President Bush has argued for a guest worker program in order to fill "jobs that Americans won't do." Would Americans refuse these jobs if they paid a living wage and included health insurance?
Guest worker programs create ghettos of exploited workers. They invite us to see these "aliens" as inferiors for whom substandard wages and working conditions are somehow "appropriate."
If we want to remain a nation under the rule of law, we must enforce our immigration laws. We should not be granting yet another amnesty to those who have violated these laws.
If it would be impractical or inhumane to cause the immediate termination of all illegal employees, we could insist on verification procedures for all new hires.
This would reduce the number of illegal employees by attrition, and substantially shrink the number of illegal residents over time. This measure would also tell the world that we are serious about our immigration laws - a message that would itself reduce the illegal influx.