Thursday, January 08, 2004

There's a massive firestorm of discontentment over the President new immigration proposal. As a legal resident alien living in Arizona, one of the border states that's been inundated by thousands of illegal immigrants flooding in from Mexico, I think I can speak to the issue with some degree of personal experience to draw upon. I've been careful to reserve judgment of the plan until I reviewed the details. From what I've seen so far, I'm not impressed.

I'm not opposed to guest worker programs, as I am a direct benefactor of one established by the NAFTA agreement. In fact, I believe the program offered by the White House is, in principle, a good one. Employers offering jobs that Americans are unwilling or unable to fill should have the means to seek workers elsewhere. This is a central tenet of solid economic policy, particularly in a free trade environment. However, there are two major problems with the plan, which will ultimately be its undoing if it is eventually passed by Congress in its current form.

First, the penalties for illegal aliens currently residing in the US who stand to benefit from the program are paltry, to say the least. In a nutshell, an alien would have 60 days or so to sign up as a guest worker, prove they have a bonafide employment offer, then pay a $1500 fine for having crossed into the US illegally. They would then be allowed to sponsor family members to join them in the US, and be free to apply for permanent residency for themselves and their family. In other words, the price for violating the law is an option to buy into a streamlined amnesty program for you and your family for $1500. If this seems more like a reward than a penalty, you are correct. A law that offers a defacto reward for illegal behavior will do little to stem the tide of illegal immigration. In fact, it's quite possible to encourage such behavior.

Curiously, for other would-be immigration violators, the penalties for attempted immigration fraud are swift and brutal. For example, as a NAFTA treaty alien, I had to submit my application for employment annually, which included my education and work credentials, passport details, a carefully worded letter from my employer, and a certified promise to leave the US once my employment was terminated. If the immigration officer reviewing my application suspected I was less than truthful in any portion of my application, I would be denied entry into the country. If the officer also perceived that I had some sort of intention of establishing residency, I would also be banned from entering the US for anywhere from 5 years to life, without appeal. Do those people who've been barred from entry to the US for even the most benign infractions get the $1500 amnesty option under the proposed immigration plan, as well? From what I've read, the answer is no, they do not. So, why should one group of people who have committed immigration fraud be rewarded, while others would still be subject to the stiff penalties of existing laws? How does this make sense, exactly?

The second problem with the Bush proposal is the complete lack of enhanced enforcement of border security, along with the vague talk of stiffening penalties for businesses and individuals who employ illegal labor. With respect to security, if people are able to breach the border easily without regard for existing laws, what good is another law? How would its enactment alone halt the waves of illegal immigrants coming into the country? As for employers, why would a firm that uses illegal labor offer jobs under the new guest worker program? Why would they open themselves up to mandatory compliance with minimum wage laws and workers' compensation statutes? Why would they want to begin making matching contributions to Social Security and Medicare? Without strict enforcement initiatives on both fronts, the proposed law is powerless to achieve the level of compliance that is necessary to make the guest worker program viable.

I'm hoping Congress addresses the glaring inequity and laxity inherent in the President's proposal over the next several months. Passing such an initiative in its current form would undoubtedly be a disaster, with myriad unintended consequences.

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