San Francisco Chronicle/ by Bruce A. Morrison
Thursday, August 9, 2007
The resounding defeat of the Senate immigration reform bill was a relief to true friends of American immigration. No more urging a "yes" vote just "to move the process forward." Let's speak the truth - the Senate bill was not merely imperfect, it would have made many things worse.
"Comprehensive Immigration Reform" sounded good, but it reflects a flawed strategy.
Immigration opponents put illegal and legal immigration into the same bucket because they want to convince Americans that there's just one problem - too many immigrants. When immigration supporters make coming or staying illegally seem like just another immigration option, they invite the same wrongheaded conclusion - that cutting all immigration is the answer.
The Senate bill was the inevitable result. To secure support for legalization (which opponents will always call amnesty regardless of the technicalities), both family and employment immigration would have been cut and crippled by broadly unpopular, ideologically driven changes demanded by restrictionists. Employers all around the Bay Area and in Silicon Valley, who have created thousands of American jobs with the help of key immigrant employees, would have been hurt by these changes. Yet all the Senate's concessions produced no additional support in the end.
But to drop immigration reform from our national agenda until after the 2008 election would be wrong. Delivering what the American people are for - legal immigration based on America's needs and enforcement that prevents illegal presence - are the first steps to fixing immigration policy as a whole.
So now is the time for the House to go a better way: "Fix Legal Immigration and Prevent Illegal Immigration First." It is two Northern California representatives - Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, and Immigration Subcommittee Chair Zoe Lofgren, D-San Jose - who can play a leading role.
Who gets to immigrate should be driven by our national interest, not our failures. Congress must make certain that the family members and employees we need and want have enough visas and get them promptly. Right now, they don't. So without legal immigration reform, enforcement strategies fail.
Besides, preventing a problem is better than enforcement after it occurs.
Prevention depends on removing the magnet of illegal employment. Today's system is a joke. It is impossible for employers to tell who is legal from the documents they are allowed to see. The pilot electronic system is a good idea, but it lacks capacity to defeat identity theft. Employers need an easy-to-use electronic system with minimal paperwork that gives a clear and dependable "yes" or "no" whether a prospective employee is legal. Let's use private sector competition to build an effective system and enlist law-abiding employers as partners in preventing illegal employment so we can focus enforcement on employers who choose to be scofflaws by avoiding or misusing the system.
Had we spent the last decade with a legal immigration system that delivered what we want and deterred what we don't, we would have many fewer people here illegally today. The silver lining of the Senate bill's collapse is that it provides the opportunity to do these two things we need most.
The longer we wait to do first things first - provide enough visas for legal immigration and remove the magnet for illegal entries created by unauthorized employment - the larger the numbers of those who will be here illegally and the less the public will trust Congress to fix the problem.
It is folly to ask Americans to accept new promises for effective immigration control when the record is so dismal. We know what to do - keep up pressure at the border and remove the jobs magnet - and unauthorized entries will plummet, especially if realistic numbers of visas are available for jobs going unfilled by Americans.
Some of that was in the Senate bill, but not without other baggage and not in a form that anyone could believe would be implemented anytime soon.
Some object that fixing legal immigration first leaves millions who are here illegally without a path to legalization. But so does the political impasse demonstrated by the Senate bill. The difference is that fixing legal immigration and stopping illegal immigration first moves toward a solution that can attract broad support, because it says "watch us" not "trust us" to the American people.
A few advocates even argue that only by holding prevention hostage can Congress be persuaded to respond humanely and sensibly to the 12 million already here. The Senate result shows that they have it backward. Most Americans will be far more open to dealing generously and wisely with residents here illegally after the federal government has shown that legalization is about curing a past mistake, not another step to millions more entering illegally in the future.
No doubt, the Senate will be slow to return to these issues. But that presents Pelosi and Lofgren with a historic opportunity to take the lead: fix legal immigration and prevent illegal immigration first.
Bruce A. Morrison, a former Democratic congressman from Connecticut, was chairman of the House Immigration subcommittee during passage of the Immigration Act of 1990 and a member of the bipartisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform.