You can see the day
laborers, if you live in a metropolitan area with any economic
vibrancy, lined up at 7 a.m. on street corners waiting for the
offer of a day's work. You can see them clustered in those storefront
shops offering cheap phone calls to Mexico or El Salvador or the
Philippines. Or, if you could go out with the Border Patrol and
a pair of night-vision goggles, you could see them in the mountains
and valleys and desert floors of Cochise County, Ariz., as they
move across the border and head toward booming Phoenix or Las
How has this come
to be? Before the restrictive immigration laws of the 1920s, almost
all immigrants came in boats from Europe and passed through entry
stations like Ellis Island -- they could be easily kept track
of and counted.
We passed restrictive
laws after World War I that vastly increased the power of the
state, and enforcement proved relatively easy. Now, our borders
are porous because people can get in by airplane or on foot. Visa
holders can overstay their visas. Whole industries -- farming
on the West Coast, meatpacking in the Midwest, chicken processing
in the South -- seem to depend on immigrant labor, and documents
can easily be forged.
Critics charge that
immigration drives down wages at the low end of the labor market,
but the effect seems minimal -- anyway, when unemployment is low,
it's not clear that millions of illegal workers could be easily
replaced even if employers offered higher wages.
But there is a pretty
widespread consensus, in a time when we are threatened by terrorism,
that border security can and should be improved. The fence built
in San Diego and increased border patrolling around El Paso, Texas,
reduced the illegal inflow there, and it increased in the Arizona
desert. With our high-tech capabilities, we surely should be able
to do better than we are now. And there are surely better ways
to keep track of visa holders.
There is less consensus
on what should be done about illegals currently in the United
States. In his 2000 campaign, George W. Bush called for a guest-
worker program, allowing illegals to legalize their status. Many
other Republicans, the loudest of them Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo,
have said that this amounts to amnesty and would reward those
who broke the law.
Secretary Michael Chertoff is busy ending our "catch and
release" program. But Bush and Congress have not done much
on new immigration legislation until this year. The guest-worker
issue splits Republicans, and Democrats are not unified on it,
Some Democrats who
favor guest workers are leery about what they consider overly
harsh border security and reporting requirements. But as private
citizens who call themselves Minutemen have taken to patrolling
the Arizona border, and as the Democratic governors of Arizona
and New Mexico have called for tougher border enforcement, pressure
on Congress to act is enormous.
For several months,
there have been White House meetings with members of Congress,
including Democrats, on immigration. Now, the talk is that the
House will take up the issue in December and pass a tough border
security bill, which will probably be backed by all Republicans
and many Democrats, and that the Senate will take up that issue
and also consider the vying guest-worker bills early next year.
Republicans Jon Kyl
and John Cornyn are sponsoring a bill that would require current
illegals to return to their native countries before receiving
temporary guest-worker permits. John McCain and Edward Kennedy
are sponsoring a bill that would allow them to apply to regularize
their status while remaining in the United States.
If the Senate passes
a bill -- a big if -- the issue would go to conference committee.
Republican leaders in Congress and the administration hope that
a conference committee version with both border security and guest
worker provisions can be jammed through the House, which will
take some Democratic as well as Republican votes.
Passage in the Senate
should be easier. But there's still a lot of hard work to be done
before an immigration bill gets to Bush's desk.