Immigration: A Modest Proposal

One of the major issue that seems to excite the GOP base is immigration policy and what to do with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already here. Politically correct Democrats maintain that there are no illegals, only undocumented workers. Democrats did nothing with the issue when they had complete control of the Congress in late 2009, instead focusing on passing the health care reform bill. Democrats would prefer that Republicans splinter over the issue and drive away Hispanic voters in the process.

But Democrats have their own discord on immigration, since two of the party's major constituencies, African-Americans and Hispanics, have different views on the subject -- 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 utter revulsion at the prospect of rewarding those who cut in line are deep and widespread. Any leniency towards illegals is seen as moral complicity in the mass contravention of our sovereign borders. 

A small irony: Almost all Republicans try 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 25 years back. They clearly want a tougher policy. Nobody wants to be Reaganesque when it comes to immigration.

Politically, immigration is an important issue on which Republicans should lead. A balanced yet comprehensive approach, as suggested below, would make it far more difficult for Democrats to demagogue Republicans among the rapidly growing Hispanic voting population. It is likely that the defeats of Ken Buck in Colorado and Sharron Angle in Nevada were in a significant way attributable to heavy Hispanic turnout for Democrats in these hotly contested Senate races. Republicans did well in 2010 in races where Hispanic Republican candidates were on the ballot -- Marco Rubio in Florida, Susana Martinez in New Mexico, Brian Sandoval in Nevada, Quico Canseco in Texas-23 among them. But with a few exceptions (e.g., Texas 27), Hispanic support for other Republicans was not much higher in 2010 than it was for John McCain in 2008 (around one third of  Hispanic voters).  

While the likelihood of future GOP success among African-American voters is not strong, leading the way on comprehensive immigration reform could be a game-changer for Republicans and conservatives. But such a policy needs to be carefully constructed -- greatly limiting illegal immigration, securing the border, addressing how to deal with illegal immigrants already here, and developing a system for both temporary workers and permanent legal immigration in the future.

There is a need to stop pandering and address the immigration issue with the seriousness it deserves. That is the only way to win the respect of the American people requisite for being ready to govern. If the GOP isn't willing to tackle the challenging issues, why trust the Republicans any more than the Democrats? Forfeiting the substantive high ground undermines the GOP's strongest argument for being trusted with political power.

Barack Obama called for 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, and the new health care entitlement passed in 2010, if left unchecked, will result in a federal budgetary nightmare in the decades ahead.

Immigration is a much easier issue to address than entitlements. 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 identification.  

The civil liberties crowd on the left as well as some immigrant advocacy groups 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. Candidates who favor deportation may want to explain exactly how such a 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, plus another 20,000 exemptions that can be made for Masters Degree holders. This is in most years far too few to meet the demand, especially in the high tech field. Those "interdisciplinary studies" majors on the field for many top college football programs this past weekend are not going to create the next iPhone, and too many of America's brightest students want to work in the private equity field, run hedge funds, or become litigators. 

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. In recent years, about 65% of legal immigrants to the U.S. were chosen based on family reunification status. In Canada, a country with substantially higher legal immigration levels as a percentage of the total population than in the U.S. (more than five times as high), about 26% of legal immigrants resulted from family reunification and double that number for economic factors.

To provide workers for many other job categories, a temporary work visa program, rather than legal immigration leading to permanent residence status and then citizenship, 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 that their pay is high enough, and they would pay Social Security taxes without benefiting from the program. It is time for a presidential candidate, and members of Congress, to denounce the delusion that workers pay into a trust fund for their own retirement. Workers 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 soundbite 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 the following: 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 he or she 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, 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 there is no path to citizenship for spouses or others not born here. 

These workers would pay not only income tax (to the extent that 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 identification, the only ones without it would be illegals who did not come out of the shadows to apply for the new visa program or those Americans who have avoided getting one for another reason. Employers who have hired illegals (those without the new visa or ID document or biometric identifier), once the guest worker program and the new visa program for those who came here illegally is established, would be sanctioned and made to pay stiff fines. Prior to the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill and/or use of a national identification program, businesses should be encouraged to make use of the E-Verify Program.

Once the new programs are 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 much of what has been offered by leading political figures from either party. 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 lawbreakers all the way up to deportation (for those convicted of crimes of any nature). 

If a program as described above or something like it is passed, and the GOP is the party that  is seen as the one that addressed the immigration issue (rather than punted on it as the Democrats did), this could have enormous political impact. In 2008, the electorate was about 13% African-American and 9% Hispanic. In the 2010 off-year elections, both percentages dropped (which generally happens in non-presidential years), but far more with African-American voters. In the U.S today, the Hispanic population is ten million more than the African-American population (in total about a sixth of the country's population) and climbing far more rapidly than that of other groups. This is occurring because of immigration (legal and illegal) and a high Hispanic birth rate. 

In time, maybe thirty to forty years from now, the national demographic breakdown will closely resemble that of California today. If conservatives and Republicans want to have a long-term political future in the United States, then either white voters will have to start voting Republican in ever-increasing percentages (this year 61%), or a major ethnic group or groups that have tended to vote Democratic must begin to switch  sides.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of American Thinker. This article is an update of an article published almost three years ago.