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Bush Proposals Could Result in Sensible Immigration Policy

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This week we've been following a debate over immigration in this country. President Bush campaigned for his immigration plan in El Paso, Texas, yesterday. Congress may consider reviving immigration laws in the coming weeks. In the second of two commentaries, immigration analyst Tamar Jacoby says Americans are running out of patience.

TAMAR JACOBY:

Even from behind the two-way mirror, I could tell the temperature was rising among the women in the focus group The Manhattan Institute commissioned recently. Virtually all the participants had a soft spot for the idea that the United States was a nation of immigrants, but the more they thought about the immigration system today, the less sure they were we could sustain the tradition. `It's all gotten so out of control now,' one explains. With more than half a million illegal immigrants entering the US each year, the question for policy-makers is how exactly to retake control.

Some people think we should just get serious about enforcing immigration law: more border guards, more money for technology along the frontier, and let's finally get tough with employers who hire illegal immigrants. The ultimate in this approach is California Congressman Duncan Hunter's proposal, a 2,000-mile fence from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico. The only problem is that it won't work. Enforcement alone won't solve the problem because our current immigration law is so unrealistic it's unenforceable.

The US is undergoing sweeping demographic change. The work force is getting older, birth rates are falling, and our native-born workers are increasingly educated. I don't know any families raising their kids to be busboys or farm hands. In the next decade, we could be five to 10 million workers short of the number we'll need to keep the economy growing. But our current immigration system is based on denial, denial of our labor needs and denial of the foreign workers who meet them. No wonder the system seems out of control.

Far better would be to recognize our labor needs and meet them with realistic immigration quotas. People are entering the country illegally to do jobs American workers don't want, so give them a legal way to enter the country and then enforce those quotas to the letter. This is what the best of the reform plans propose. The president's plan, restated this week, and several proposals before Congress combine a guest worker program with much tougher enforcement. They call for more border guards than we have now. Unlike the last time we reformed the immigration system, these plans include employer sanctions that would really stick, and if Congress does its job right, there will be incentives so some guest workers go home when their work stints are over, and incentives so that others become US citizens.

But all these proposals are based on the same theory: It's very hard, if not impossible, to enforce unrealistic law. Just think about Prohibition. Recognize reality and you can regulate it. Critics call this amnesty, but the women in the focus group didn't see it that way. They liked the idea of a bill that would give illegal immigrants a chance to earn their way on to the right side of the law, because they weren't ready yet to give up on the idea of the US as a nation of immigrants. They just wanted to make sure that it was happening legally.

INSKEEP: That's commentary from Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute, an economic and political think tank.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tamar Jacoby