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At this critical moment in the immigration debate, conservatives need to examine the role we are playing in this great national issue. In many respects, the way we position ourselves on immigration will determine whether we retain the mantle of majority leadership. What side of history do conservatives want to be on? Will we remain a movement that governs -- that offers practical solutions to the problems facing the country?
Conservatives have always prided themselves on acknowledging, in the words of John Adams, that "Facts are stubborn things." Well, immigration -- both the robust annual flow required to keep our economy growing and the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country -- is a fact of life in the U.S. today. And the only practical way to deal with these stubborn realities is with a comprehensive solution, one that includes border security, interior enforcement, a guest worker program and status for the illegal immigrants already here.
Some counsel that Congress should start with tougher enforcement and border security, but wait to create a guest worker program or address the illegal population. Only that way, it is said, can we avoid the mistakes of the failed 1986 immigration reform.
But in fact, the lesson of 1986 is that only a comprehensive solution will fix our broken immigration system.
The 1986 legislation combined amnesty for three million illegal immigrants with a promise of tougher enforcement, particularly in the workplace. But the law did not recognize the need for future immigration to meet the demands of a growing economy, and the new enforcement never materialized. The result? Twenty years later, illegal immigration is unabated. Why? Because while immigrants continue to be drawn to the jobs created by our economy, they have no legal way to enter the country.
What this history teaches is that the only way to control immigration is with a combination package -- securing the border, enforcing the law in the workplace and creating legal channels for workers to enter the country.
Our past experience with guest worker programs bears this out. Illegal immigration reached a peak in the mid-'50s, and more than a million people were apprehended trying to cross the border in 1954. Then Congress expanded the Bracero work-visa program, creating a way for 300,000 immigrants to enter the U.S. legally each year.
The result? This new legal flow replaced the old illegal influx, and by 1964, INS apprehensions had dropped to fewer than 100,000. As the Congressional Research Service noted in 1980, "Without question, the Bracero program was . . . instrumental in ending the illegal alien problem of the mid-1940s and 1950s." The Bracero program and the 1986 failure point in the same direction: A comprehensive solution is the only real and lasting way to address immigration.
The American people intuitively understand this, which is why, in poll after poll, they choose a comprehensive approach over one that relies on enforcement alone. A recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll found that Americans prefer a comprehensive plan to an enforcement-only proposal by 50% to 33%.
Of course, there are things in the Senate bill that need fixing -- and conservatives must stand strong in favor of assimilation. New immigrants need to learn English, U.S. history and the values that have made this country great.
But let us remember the counsel of the great conservative standard-bearer, Ronald Reagan, who was in favor of strong borders -- he once remarked that "a nation without borders is not really a nation" -- but also constantly reminded us that America must remain a "beacon" and a "shining city on a hill" for immigrants who continually renew our great country with their energy and add to the nation's economic growth and prosperity. Reagan was right. We need to do both things -- secure the borders and allow for sensible levels of safe, open, lawful immigration.
Americans and immigrants share the same values of work and opportunity. There is no reason to fear the newcomers arriving on our shores today -- if anything, they will energize what is best about our country.
The best way -- the only way -- to realize President Reagan's vision is through comprehensive immigration reform legislation. We urge the House and Senate to work out their differences and meet the demand of the American people that we act on this critical issue in a comprehensive way.
Signed by: Jack Kemp (former congressman from New York); George P. Shultz (distinguished fellow, Hoover Institution); Jeanne Kirkpatrick (former ambassador to the U.N.); Tamar Jacoby (senior fellow, Manhattan Institute); Cesar V. Conda (senior fellow, FreedomWorks); Ken Weinstein (CEO, Hudson Institute); Grover Norquist (president, Americans for Tax Reform); Jeff Bell (board of directors, American Conservative Union); Larry Cirignano (president, Catholic Alliance); Bill Kristol (editor, The Weekly Standard); Arthur B. Laffer (chairman, Laffer Investments); Linda Chavez (chairman, Center for Equal Opportunity); Elaine Dezenski (former acting assistant secretary for policy development, Department of Homeland Security); Lawrence Kudlow (economics editor, National Review Online); John Podhoretz (columnist, the New York Post); John McWhorter (senior fellow, Manhattan Institute); Joseph Bottum (editor, First Things); Max Boot (senior fellow, Council on Foreign Relations); Vin Weber (former congressman from Minnesota); Richard Gilder (partner, Gilder Gagnon Howe & Co., LLC); Ed Goeas (Republican strategist); Martin Anderson (senior fellow, Hoover Institution); J.C. Watts (former congressman from Oklahoma); Ed Gillespie (former chairman, Republican National Committee); C. Stewart Verdery, Jr. (former assistant secretary for border and transportation security policy, Department of Homeland Security); Diana Furchtgott-Roth (senior fellow, Hudson Institute); Robert de Posada (president, the Latino Coalition); Clint Bolick (president, Alliance for School Choice, and winner of 2006 Bradley Prize); Steven Wagner (former director, human trafficking program, Department of Health and Human Services); Steve Forbes (CEO, Forbes Inc.); Gary Rosen (managing editor, Commentary); Michael Petrucelli (former acting director, U.S. citizenship and immigration services, Department of Homeland Security); and John C. Weicher (senior fellow, Hudson Institute).