Immigration Realism

John Fonte’s understanding of the immigration debate is unfortunately out of touch. (See his NRO piece, “Comprehensively Wrong,” posted on July 25.) So perhaps we can do something to help him better understand it.

Fonte contends, among other things, that the reform we endorsed in our “Conservatives’ Letter on Immigration Reform,” published in the Wall Street Journal on July 10, is “mostly Democratic.” Tell that to President Bush, Senate Majority Leader Frist, and the 22 other GOP legislators who voted for that approach in the Senate. John Fonte may find some of these lawmakers insufficiently hardline — and he apparently scorns bipartisanship even in the interest of solving the nation’s most pressing problems — but they are still Republicans, and a number of them are conservatives’ conservatives. As for the 33 signatories of our letter — they included George Shultz, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Grover Norquist, Bill Kristol, Ed Gillespie — well…the list speaks for itself.

Then there are Fonte’s outmoded ideas about enforcement. It used to be — years ago — that the public faced an either/or choice between immigration and enforcement. Immigrant advocates asserted that policy should be driven by their clients’ rights and that this required an increase in immigration quotas, while conservatives talked about law and order, enforcing the border, and retaking control, all of which generally meant fewer immigrants. But the debate has changed dramatically in the last year or two. Thanks to the president and other Republican proponents of reform, there’s another option on the table now — one that combines the workers we need to grow the economy and the tough enforcement measures we need to secure the border and restore the rule of law.

Not only that, but this package — more honest immigration quotas combined with tougher enforcement — is arguably the only way to deliver the control the American people rightly seek. We’re certainly not going to get there simply by asking local police to check immigration status — something apparently seen by Fonte as an essential tool for enforcement . Local police have a role to play, as do barriers on the border (Fonte’s other suggestion), but the only way we are ultimately going to get a grip is with workplace enforcement (something Fonte never mentions ) combined with more realistic, more enforceable immigration laws.

Fonte spurns the realism that’s required, calling it “quasi-Marxist,” “fatalist,” and an abdication of “self-government.” That’s just ridiculous. Is it fatalist to recognize 21st-century America’s changing labor needs? Is it “Marxist” to believe that government gets better results when it seeks to regulate rather than repeal the laws of supply and demand? None of those who signed our letter believe that immigrants have a “human right” to come to work in the U.S., as Fonte claims. But we do understand that epochal demographic shifts and the increasing integration of global labor markets make an immigrant influx on the order we’ve been experiencing in recent years not just good but vital for the U.S. economy — and we believe it’s pragmatism, not fatalism, to recognize that fact.

There’s a new immigration reform proposal on the table now, however, that would seem to meet many of his concerns yet would work, by and large, for both of us: the plan now jointly sponsored by two additional conservatives’ conservatives, Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R., Tex.).

The Pence-Hutchison plan meets our number-one test: that the solution include tougher enforcement, both on the border and in the workplace, more visas for workers, and an answer for the 12 million illegal immigrants already in the county. But it also meets Fonte’s: that we start by putting in place all the means necessary to ensure tougher enforcement, and only then proceed with the other components of the program.

The Pence-Hutchison approach spares nothing in the way of enhanced enforcement: more than 16,000 additional agents over the next five years, 20,000 additional detention beds, aerial drones, helicopters, power boats, and a GPS-guided virtual fencing system on the border, as well as a long-overdue national employment verification system — complete with new national databases and secure biometric worker ID cards — that would have to be fully operational for all U.S. workers by 2012.

But the new plan is also realistic — about both the illegal immigrants already here and what is likely to be our ongoing need for foreign workers. Its temporary worker plan, far from being “mostly Democratic” or Marxist, is actually run by the private sector in conjunction with the Department of Homeland Security; and it can be used to fill only jobs for which no U.S. worker can be found.

As for the illegal immigrants already here, Pence and Hutchison recognize that we as a nation must come to grips with that vast underground world; they know we cannot simply wish it away, as Fonte and his allies often suggest. But the new plan is a far cry from amnesty. Illegal immigrants who wish to continue working in the U.S. must first leave the country and apply for new visas at home, wherever they originally came from. Only those who pass criminal background and other security checks would be readmitted, and they would have to repeat these checks on a regular basis as long as they remain in the U.S. They would have two years to learn English, and if they didn’t, their visas wouldn’t be renewed. Nor would the plan allow them to get ahead of anyone waiting in line outside the country: those already here would not be eligible for permanent status — or any kind of welfare, for that matter — for 17 years after they came forward to register. Only then — after all those years of living on the right side of the law, putting down roots, and investing in their communities — would they be allowed to apply for citizenship.

The plan isn’t perfect. It applies only to NAFTA and CAFTA countries, for example. And while its authors are right that most of today’s immigrants — the figure is in the 80 to 85 percent range — hail from Latin America, not all of them do, and it isn’t realistic to exclude the others, especially those already here. The provision by which immigrants could eventually become citizens also needs to be fleshed out. To their credit, Pence and Hutchison don’t preclude that all-important last step on the road to assimilation for what will by then be long-time legal immigrants, but it isn’t clear that they have fully thought through how this would work. Certainly, it makes sense to require those who originally entered illegally to wait their turn in line, but mandating that they live in limbo, caught between two countries and two cultures, for nearly a generation would not be in their interest or ours.

Which brings us to Fonte’s main point, the argument that animates his case against immigration — namely, that we, as others have put it, aren’t just an economy, we’re a nation. Certainly this is true, and Fonte is hardly misguided in his passionate concern about assimilation. But what’s striking and sad about the way he makes his case is how little faith he seems to have in the enduring appeal of American values and our democratic way of life. True enough, as he writes, some segment of the public — mostly politically irrelevant university professors — have lost sight in recent decades of the value of assimilation. And more can be done — should be done, ideally by the private and public sectors working together — to assist immigrants in becoming full Americans. But the seductive power of our ideals is undiminished, and today as in the past, they remain all but irresistible to newcomers — just ask any immigrant.

As we can have immigration and enforcement too, so we need not, as Fonte apparently believes, face a choice between immigration and assimilation. What we need is a more rational, realistic immigration policy that recognizes all three imperatives — prosperity, the rule of law, and a cohesive nation. If only Republicans, now so divided on the issue, could manage to put aside our differences and finish the all-important job of crafting and passing a three-pronged approach.

— Tamar Jacoby is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Cesar V. Conda, former assistant for domestic policy to Vice President Dick Cheney, is a senior fellow at FreedomWorks.