Keep the Front Door of Legal Immigration Open

The so-called Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (H.R. 4437) currently under consideration in the U.S. House of Representatives is so overreaching that, in my opinion, it could become the Proposition 187 of the 21st century. It should be recalled that Proposition 187 was a Draconian effort in the mid-1990s by the state of California to drive undocumented aliens out of the country and deter their entry by cutting them off from all public services, including education, welfare and other social services such as medical care. The effect was to drastically alienate Hispanic voters in California from the Republican Party.

H.R. 4437 is so overreaching that it would effectively transform any relative, employer, co-worker, co-congregant or friend of an undocumented immigrant into an “alien smuggler” and a criminal. The legislation’s far-reaching “smuggling” provisions go far beyond any common-sense definition of a “smuggler” and include average Americans going about their business. It also inappropriately conscripts the American business community into the U.S. government’s immigration police force by requiring burdensome investigative and reporting activities where prospective employees are concerned.

In a recent letter to several members of Congress, I urged my fellow Republicans to stand against such ill-advised anti-immigrant policies and not support an anti-immigration movement that is politically unwise and fundamentally at odds with the best tradition and spirit of our nation and our party. Immigrants coming to America do so because the United States is still the city on a shining hill for the poor and persecuted. Most aliens come here out of necessity, looking for work, not welfare, and for opportunities that do not presently exist in their native countries.

In the long run, the best way to fix our immigration system is not to militarize the border or to drive undocumented immigrants further into the shadows. The flood of illegal immigration exists, in large part, because U.S. laws do not provide legal channels to accommodate the labor demand of employers and the supply of immigrants willing to work. An estimated 70 percent of the current agriculture work force is illegal. Current guest-worker programs are capped at 66,000 annually for non-agriculture service industries, the current temporary agricultural-worker program is so bureaucratic that over 40 percent of applications to the Department of Labor are not acted upon until after the harvest, and current laws allow the admission of only 5,000 unskilled workers annually on a permanent basis.

Our country needs immigration reforms that allow undocumented workers of good character who have resided in the United States for many years to apply for documented status; allow those who have lost their status as legal residents, but remain eligible to become permanent residents, to remain in the United States while seeking to regain their status; and help reduce family backlogs by providing more visas for close family members of citizens and permanent residents. We need a guest-worker program, such as that proposed by President Bush, that seeks to fulfill the work of Father Ted Hesburgh of Notre Dame, who said, “Close the back door of illegal immigration so as to keep open the golden door of legal immigration.”

Anti-immigration politicians and candidates fail to realize a few fundamental truths, the most important of which is that we are a nation of immigrants. George Washington famously said in 1788 that, “I had always hoped that this land might become a safe and agreeable asylum to the virtuous and persecuted part of mankind, to whatever nation they might belong.”

It’s true our borders are broken and the problem is huge, but Republicans have the opportunity today to take the lead on reforms that fix our immigration system. Sending this legislation to the president to be signed is sure to be perceived as anti-immigrant and, indeed, anti-growth. This mistake of incalculable proportions should be stopped and redrafted to include a guest-worker provision that is both humane and pro-growth.