Immigration: A Modest Proposal

No issue seems to excite the GOP base more than immigration and the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already here. Politically correct Democrats maintain there are no illegals, only undocumented workers.  Democrats, for all practical purposes, do not want to talk about immigration, and would prefer that Republicans splinter over the issue and drive away Hispanic voters in the process.

But Democrats have their own discord on the issue, since two of the Party's major constituencies, African Americans, and Hispanics, have different views on the subject, and on the impact of high levels of immigration (legal or illegal)  on wage rates, and job prospects for members of these groups.

On the Republican side tensions are out in the open. Anger over the flouting of the rule of law, and the utter revulsion at the prospect of rewarding those who cut in line, is deep and widespread.  President Bush, those who supported his immigration proposal in Congress, and Governors and Mayors who demonstrated any leniency towards illegals, are all  blamed for moral complicity in the mass contravention of our sovereign borders.  The four serious remaining GOP candidates for President; John McCain, Rudy Giuliani , Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee, have all come in for criticism for their record on this issue.

A small irony: All the Republicans have tried to run as the candidate most like Ronald Reagan, and since Reagan supported a plan that would now be called amnesty, it is obvious that  GOP voters now take this issue more seriously than they did  20 years back, and want a tougher policy. Nobody wants to be Reaganesque when it comes to immigration.

Some of the GOP candidates, particularly Mike Huckabee, have done almost 180 degree pivots on the issue to get more in line with their perception on where conservative Republicans are on the issue. Both Huckabee and Romney oppose amnesty for illegals, though Romney is vague about what to do with those already here, while Huckabee seems to support deporting them. John McCain   and Rudy Giuliani  have also hardened their positions, and argued for border security first and foremost, though they have not moved to where Romney and Huckabee are on the issue. 

I am somewhat uncomfortable with the positions of all of the GOP candidates on the issue. There is a need to stop pandering, and address this issue with the seriousness it deserves. That is the only way to win the respect of the American people for being ready to govern. If the GOP isn't willing to tackle the challenging issues, why trust the Republican nominee any more than the Democrat? Forfeiting the substantive high ground undermines the GOP's strongest argument for being trusted with political power.

Barack Obama can talk of hope and unity, and change, but he has no plan on immigration. Most politicians have avoided tackling immigration along with entitlement spending, the other great, mostly unspoken issue.  Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, left unchecked, will result in a federal budgetary nightmare in the decades ahead.

Immigration is a much easier issue to address than the entitlement issue. So here is an outline of an approach for the three major components of immigration policy: border security; a guest worker program; and dealing with the illegal immigrants already here.

Border security

Border security involves completion of a fence (either physical or electronic) on the southern border matched with  a much larger border security force, ending the catch and release program, and beginning a biometric identification program for all those who enter the county, and eventually for all those who are here. (Yes, I am talking about a national ID program.) When some Islamic terrorist with a suitcase nuclear device enters the country from Canada (where there is no fence and little security), and is stopped for a traffic violation, it would be nice to be able to detain him for not having the required ID card.  

The civil libertarians on the left will scream bloody murder about this, as will libertarians and others within the GOP. But if you want to know who is here, then we need to go beyond the current identification methods available to law enforcement, and create a uniform national program. Many European countries have already moved in this direction. The failure of the catch and release program -- the inability to even temporarily hold all those now captured near the border -- proves the utter fantasy of a deportation program.  Huckabee may want to explain exactly how a deportation program would work -- how the 12 million illegal immigrants who are here would be identified, rounded up, and then deported, as well as the cost of such a program.

Guest Worker Program

A guest worker program should be part of the general legal immigration program and process. Today, there are roughly 65,000 H-1 B visas issued each year for certain specialty work categories. This is far too few to meet the demand, especially in the high tech field. Those interdisciplinary studies majors on the field for LSU the other night are not going to create the next iPhone, and too many of America's brightest students want to work in the private equity field and run hedge funds. 

If we are not growing enough of our own top talent, then bringing in more engineers and scientists and other talent from overseas keeps our industries the most innovative and successful. Our ability to attract talent from all over the world and build a system of entrepreneurial innovation constitutes a huge source of strength for our economy. The industries of the future are not a zero-sum jobs game with every new foreign worker costing one American a job.

Multiple classes of guest worker visas could be established. A point system like Canada's or some other method could identify candidates for landed immigrant status with a clear path to citizenship, and for special categories of skilled labor visas with paths to permanent residency and citizenship.

But to provide workers for many other job categories, a temporary work visa program is in order.

Temporary Work Visa

A class of temporary work visas would exist for people who want to legally come to the United States, work hard, play by the rules, and having enriched themselves and our economy, return to their home country with honor, always welcome to come back on a tourist visa to spend time with friends and family.

No path to citizenship would be allowed. If a TWV holder wants to apply for citizenship, another channel must be used after the TWV is surrendered. 

The guest worker visa explicitly is not a lifetime permit. The worker must eventually leave the country, after a specified number of renewals.

These workers would pay income taxes to the extent their pay was high enough, and social security taxes, even though they would not benefit from the program. It is time for a presidential candidate to denounce the delusion that workers pay into a trust fund for their own retirement. They pay social security taxes to provide benefits for those now retired.

Hence the TWV becomes a transfer program from guest workers, helping make the social security program more solvent as the price of coming to America.

There would be no chain visa to bring in families, since this is a temporary guest worker program.

The Reinstatement Visa

Deporting 12 million illegals is ridiculous, and totally impractical. It may be a good sound byte in some places, but it is not real public policy. The Bush plan was too generous in the other direction. Many Americans were rightly upset about providing a path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally, when so many millions abroad wait years for a chance to get here legally.

In any case, those who entered the country illegally did so to work, not to vote, so there is no reason to offer a path to citizenship and voting rights. The humane but fair approach I think is to create another new visa category for those who entered the country illegally, the reinstatement visa.

In practice, this means: Pay a fine, learn English, and you get to stay and work. But it formally acknowledges an infraction, restitution, forgiveness. It is in everyone's interest that America and her guest workers treat each other with respect going forward.

Some have argued for making distinctions among the illegal immigrants already here, based on how long someone had been in the country. But since you are talking about an illegal immigrant without documentation, how would you really know whether someone was telling the truth as to when they arrived? 

There is no reason for providing a path to citizenship for those who entered the country illegally. These individuals would also not be granted permanent residence status (which provides some family unification benefit). If you are here without your family, and want to bring your family over, then you can leave the country, and get in line and apply with others from your home country for permanent residence.  If your family is here already, they get to stay, but other than those born here, there is no path to citizenship for spouses or others not born here. 

These workers would not only pay income tax (to the extent their income is high enough) but also social security tax. Those who entered the country illegally and committed a crime while here for which they are convicted, would be deported.

Since every person in the country would need an identification card, the only ones without them would be illegals who did not come out of the shadows to apply for the new visa program  or those Americans who avoided getting one for another reason.  Employers who hired illegals (those without the new visa or ID card), once the guest worker program and the new visa program for those who came here illegally were established, would be sanctioned and made to pay stiff fines. 

Once the new programs were adopted, the federal government should not respect any designation by cities that they are sanctuaries for illegal immigrants, and should enforce the law everywhere.  Cities should face a penalty in federal support funds if they interfere with federal enforcement of the law.

There are myriad details to be worked out for all the components described above (how immigrant status might change through marriage is one such issue that is more complex than it might seem).

But I think a plan similar to what I have outlined is more balanced and practical and fair than what any of the candidates are now touting.  It will provide for a steady work force, treat people humanely, make it more difficult to sneak into America , make it easier to identify those who do break the immigration laws, and provide penalties for those who do all the way up to deportation ( for those convicted of crimes of any nature). 

Richard Baehr is political director of American Thinker.