Border control: the first step to immigration reform

Friday, April 14, 2006

This week, Congress considered granting amnesty for 12 million illegal immigrants in America. The national debt stood at over $8 trillion. The war on terrorism drew within seven months of its five-year anniversary. Programs like Social Security and Medicare continue to face grave uncertainties, long term and short. Education, housing, labor, commerce, agriculture and environmental protection are all pegged for reduced budgets in the next fiscal year. Undecided veterans benefits claims are stacked nearly a million deep, VA construction projects are delayed, and lines are once again forming at under-funded veterans' health-care facilities. In all, 141 federal programs are proposed for reduction or elimination in 2007.

The "guest-worker" program now being debated in Washington is a quick, costly stab at solving America's illegal immigration crisis. Recent history shows how the quick-fix approach won't work. In fact, it can be expected to quadruple the long-term federal cost of providing services for newly legalized immigrants, along with the dependents who will follow them in years to come. Their chances of realizing the American dream will be shot without a robust naturalization process that includes English language skills, allegiance to the laws of our nation, denouncement of our enemies, and an ultimate expectation of U.S. citizenship.

Of course, deportation or incarceration of the millions who risked death to cross the border illegally -- so many of them desperate to work hard and build better lives for their families -- is logistically, economically and diplomatically unwise and inhumane. It is indeed a complicated problem, one that has ridden along like a stowaway in the cargo hold of our republic since its founding. The ultimate solution to illegal immigration may be years away.

In the meantime, there is one critical step America must take, particularly during this time of global war and threatened national security, a time when a nuclear device can be carried in a backpack. That step is a vastly stronger commitment to border control -- on the south, the north, in our ports and everyplace else we have let our perimeters grow porous.

Border security, not amnesty, must be the first step. Without it, we can expect nothing less than a repeat performance of the disastrous Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. The act gave 2.8 million illegal immigrants a free pass from the laws they broke to get into America. Another 142,000 dependents soon followed. Ten years after the law was passed, the average immigrant who received amnesty in 1986 was earning $9,000 a year and had made it only through the seventh grade. Meanwhile, the taxpayer cost of medicating, educating, feeding, incarcerating and providing services to that group alone is estimated at $78 billion, according to the Center for Immigration Studies. Millions more illegal immigrants poured into the United States following the 1986 amnesty, which failed to make a necessary commitment to border control to go along with the free pass for those already living here.

In recent years, the brutal "coyote" industry of human trafficking has begun to eclipse narcotics smuggling along the border, leading hundreds to their deaths in the deserts or to be stuffed by the dozens into suburban drop houses with no place to go. Nearly 4 million are estimated to have immigrated illegally into the United States since 2000 alone.

If the 1986 model is applied to the guest-worker initiatives now debated in Congress, taxpayers can conservatively calculate $312 billion to pay for this proposed amnesty over the next 20 years, at which time, without the necessary commitment to border control, another amnesty is certain to be proposed. The money will be spent, and the problem will still be with us. That $312 billion would go a long way toward

improving access to VA health care, providing education to low-income children, fortifying the future of Social Security and, lest we forget,toward securing the borders and enforcing immigration laws already on the books in America.

Since the early 1920s, The American Legion has supported legal immigration, the naturalization process, the adoption of a shared language, and the lawful route to U.S. citizenship. That support is built on the hope that future generations, regardless of their country of origin, have every opportunity to succeed and live out the American dream.

The granting of amnesty eviscerates the process - rejecting laws built on the protection of the American people and of immigrants themselves. The granting of amnesty without an expectation of naturalization and assimilation all but guarantees that newly legalized immigrants and their families will stay stuck at the bottom of the income and education ladder, caught behind a language barrier that is growing ever more impenetrable. Amnesty strips away any incentive for an immigrant to pursue citizenship the legal way, and it does nothing to untangle the red tape that prevents law-abiding immigrants from timely decisions on their visa applications.

The world possesses no nation so welcoming as America. But ours is not a house without rules, nor can it be, certainly not in a time of war. The answer to this dilemma resides somewhere between the deportation of 12 million illegal immigrants and the declaration that everyone in the world, regardless of their place of origin or intent, has a God-given right to live here.

The answer has yet to come fully into focus, but we know from 1986 that putting a Band-Aid over a sucking chest wound is not going to heal our condition in the long run. And we can safely forecast from past experience that a blanket amnesty today will lead to a bigger one tomorrow.

In his final days, President Theodore Roosevelt grappled with the same problem and wrote the following: "We should insist that if the immigrant who comes here in good faith becomes an American and assimilates himself to us, he shall be treated on an exact equality with everyone else, for it is an outrage to discriminate against any such man because of creed, or birthplace, or origin. But this is predicated upon the person's becoming in every facet an American, and nothing but an American ... There can be no divided allegiance here."

His message, which captures the spirit of the naturalization process, is one our elected leaders would be wise to revisit as they work toward the resolution of our nation's most imposing issue.

Thomas L. Bock is national commander of the 2.7 million-member American Legion, the nation's largest military veterans organization. One if its primary legislative objectives calls for strict border control enforcement.