Senators Schumer (l) and Graham (r)

Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) published an op-ed featured in today’s Washington Post which outlines their plan for comprehensive immigration reform.  The two Senators emphasized that their approach is “the right way to mend immigration.” This strategy comes as a result of President Obama’s campaign promise to pursue comprehensive immigration reform within his first year in office—a deadline that has since passed, leading to significant pressure to take up legislation.

The basic idea of ‘doing something’ to fix immigration is an idea that all Americans can rally around. We can all agree, and Senators Schumer and Graham rightly assert, that “our immigration system is badly broken.”  Their plan, however, which centers on an amnesty for the 10.9 million illegal immigrants inside the U.S., would punt the immigration problem to the next generation of Americans by encouraging even more illegal migration into the United States.  Specifically, the plan is described in four pillars:

  • “requiring biometric Social Security cards to ensure that illegal workers cannot get jobs”
  • “fulfilling and strengthening our commitments on border security and interior enforcement”
  • “creating a process for admitting temporary workers”
  • “implementing a touch but fair path to legalization for those already here.”

The first pillar will undoubtedly be controversial for millions of Americans concerned with the idea of a national identification card. Heritage has long stood up against efforts to create such a card, and any legislative mandate that would take that step should be subjected to considerable scrutiny.

However, the success of pillar one still rests on the ability of the United States to be successful at pillar two—strengthening the security of the border and maintaining a robust interior enforcement system.  Without enforcement—immigration laws are relatively meaningless.  And given the Obama Administration’s recent rollbacks in immigration enforcement efforts—including decreased to non-existent workplace checks, discouragement of state and local enforcement programs, and an all-out abandonment of Social Security No Match—the Administration has failed to show much dedication to the enforcement of the law.  E-Verify, the Administration’s golden egg of enforcement is good, but it isn’t perfect and still fails to stop those individuals engaged in identity theft.  The Senators are right when they assert that there has been significant border progress over the past few years, however, without an interior enforcement system, half of the job is left unfinished.

Without such an enforcement and security system in place, it is difficult to see how the fourth pillar—legalizing the illegal immigrants here in the United States, would do anything but contribute further to the America’s immigration problem.  In fact in 1986 we did an amnesty for those here in the United States—but failed to finish the border and enforcement piece, sparking a wave of illegal immigration that brought us to where we are today.  Immigration experts can argue the semantics of whether a legalization is the same as an amnesty—but with a lack of enforcement and the hope of a job inside the United States, such an action will encourage more people come to illegally.

Fundamentally, it is unfair to straddle the next generation of both American citizens and new immigrants with a problem that can be tackled now in an incremental fashion.

The plans third pillar actually hints of this better way forward, one that would not involve amnesty or the need for anything that resembles a national id card.  This approach recognizes the need to make America’s immigration system better able to meet the needs of the economy while allowing new immigrants to come to the U.S. for a new life and new opportunities.  By taking a phased approach which starts with robust border and immigration enforcement and is followed by a significant overhaul in legal immigration processes –including better visa management, a pilot temporary worker program, and better citizenship programs—the U.S. can begin to tackle the immigration problem.  At the same time, the U.S. should look for ways to help the economic development and public safety in Mexico and Latin America.  These measures would greatly decrease the incentive for south-north migration and for individuals to overstay their visas.

Solving illegal immigration is more often than not phrased as a choice between amnesty and mass deportation.  Schumer and Graham rely on those talking points. Undoubtedly, this is a great line for an op-ed, but not representative of reality. Most Americans want a solution that does neither.  They want an immigration system that enforces the law, helps the economy, betters America’s image, and brings new immigrants into the United States, much like their ancestors did not so long ago.  This should be the goal of real immigration reform.