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2 immigration bills in Congress would complement each other

SHARE 2 immigration bills in Congress would complement each other

SAN ANTONIO — What do you say to the working-class guy from the south side of San Antonio? He feels his wages are stagnating because he has to compete against illegal immigrants. He watches thousands of people streaming across the border, bankrupting his schools and health-care system, while he plays by the rules.

He's no racist. Many of his favorite neighbors are kind, neat and hard-working Latinos. But his neighborhood now has homes with five cars rotting in the front yard and 12 single men living in one house. Now there are loud parties until 2 a.m. and gang graffiti on the walls. He read in the local paper last week that Anglos are now a minority in Texas and wonders if anybody is in charge of this social experiment.

What do you tell him about the immigration system?

Here's what you tell him: You're right. The system is out of control. But we can't just act like lunkheads and think we can solve this problem with brute force. Tough enforcement laws make us feel good, but they don't do the job. Since 1986, we've tripled the number of border patrol agents and increased the enforcement budget 10 times over, but we haven't made a dent in the number of illegals who make it here. We've got agents chasing busboys while who knows what kind of terrorists are trying to sneak into this country.

The problem is that we make it nearly impossible for the immigrants to come here legally. We issue about 5,000 visas for unskilled year-round labor annually, but the economy requires hundreds of thousands of new workers to clean hotel rooms and process food. We need these workers, but we force them underground with our self-delusional immigration policies. As Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute says, "It's very hard to enforce unrealistic rules."

So it doesn't matter how many beer-swilling good old boys appoint themselves citizen border guards, we're not going to get this situation under control until we understand this paradox: The more we simply crack down, the more disorder we get. The only way to re-establish order is to open up legal, controllable channels through which labor can flow in an aboveground, orderly way. We can't build a wall to stop this flood; we need sluice gates to regulate the flow.

Smart people understand this, and there has been an important change in the immigration debate. Among practical people, it's no longer pro-immigrant folks against anti-immigrant folks. It's no longer law-and-order hawks versus amnesty doves. Practical people understand the only way to establish law and order is to create a temporary-worker program and step up enforcement to make sure people use it.

In the Senate there are two bills, which if combined would get us a long way toward a solution. The McCain-Kennedy bill has an effective temporary-worker program. The Kyl-Cornyn bill has tough border security provisions. As Jacoby notes, the sponsors of both may come to realize the two bills are not rivals. They complement each other.

This reform won't satisfy people who want immigrants to disappear. But most Americans just want to know the system is under control, and this will do it.

That still leaves the transitional problem of what to do with the 11 million illegals who are already here. We can't build an aboveground immigration system if we've still got millions living in a criminal swamp below.

We're not going to deport 11 million people, many of whom own homes and businesses. But normalizing their status is a question of balance. If we treat them too punitively, we'll just push them further underground. On the other hand, they broke the law, and they have to pay. McCain-Kennedy would lure them into the sunlight with the prospect of normalization, but would make them pay all back taxes and a $2,000 fine to become regularized, and they'd have to get in the back of the line. That's a start, but the penalties probably will have to be a bit tougher to be politically palatable.

So here's the bottom line for the guy in San Antonio: Everybody's expecting a big blowup on this issue, but we've got a great chance of enacting serious immigration reform. It won't solve all problems. There will still be wage pressures and late-night parties. But right now immigration chaos is spreading a subculture of criminality across America. What we can do is re-establish law and order, so immigrants can bring their energy to this country without destroying the social fabric while they're here.