In trying to get mileage out of the immigration debate, those fire-breathing House Republicans pretty much cornered the market on silliness, sideshows and sound bites.
Besides tossing red meat to the mob, why propose something as outlandish as a 2,000-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border or denying citizenship to U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants or turning local police into surrogate immigration agents?
One hopes the grown-ups in the Senate will do better when they take a stab at immigration reform in the next few weeks.
Already, senators deserve credit for tackling the thorniest issue of this entire debate: What to do with the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants who are already in the United States? All three of the top bills in the Senate – Cornyn/Kyl, McCain/Kennedy and the new draft legislation proposed by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter – offer some kind of solution.
Some of what the senators are proposing is workable and wise – and some of it is just wishful thinking.
The Cornyn/Kyl bill falls into the second category. It cops out by simply decreeing that those here illegally must leave and return to their home countries, where they could then apply to re-enter the United States through a temporary worker program.
And what if people don’t cooperate? What if they don’t leave? And why would they, given that they have no incentive to do so?
Supporters of Cornyn/Kyl insist that people will feel compelled because we will have cracked down on employers to the point where the only people who will be able to find jobs are those who register through the government-sponsored guest worker program. Speaking of wishful thinking.
Back in the real world, the McCain/Kennedy bill offers workers something tangible – the chance to stay in the United States with permanent residency – if they, in essence, acknowledge the crime of coming illegally by paying a $2,000 fine.
Amnesty is more of a problem than a solution. You often hear that allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the United States legally either “rewards lawbreakers” or encourages more illegal immigrants to come. But there’s something that already does both of those things: jobs. They’re being offered like crazy by U.S. employers desperate to find workers to do, as President Bush often says, “jobs that Americans won’t do.” A better argument against amnesty is that it cheapens the right to reside in the United States legally by granting the privilege en masse.
That leaves us with Specter’s bill. Specter did something that neither the White House nor other members of Congress did, and that’s clarify the difference between our approach to current workers and to future ones. In other words, between amnesty and guest workers. The terms aren’t synonymous.
Specter wants to (1) create a temporary guest worker program that would allow hundreds of thousands of foreign workers to fill jobs in the United States for up to six years; and (2) allow millions of illegal immigrants who are already here to remain indefinitely, provided they register with the Department of Homeland Security, pay back taxes, abide by the law and remain employed.
Here’s the problem: While Specter’s bill does give the hundreds of thousands of new guest workers the right to switch jobs and requires that participating employers pay the prevailing wage, he leaves the millions who are already here in the legal equivalent of suspended animation. They won’t have legal residency, or even be on a path to one day achieve it, and so they’ll be vulnerable to cheats and scoundrels. You know, the way they are now. The Specter bill is a good beginning. But it needs amendments, and there’s still a long way to go.
I said I didn’t want government to simply turn illegal immigrants into citizens or legal residents. But, that doesn’t mean I want them turned into prey.
Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union Tribune. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org