Sound Immigration Policy Requires Labor Enforcement

Commentator Ruben Navarrette says President Bush's immigration plan should be tougher on employers who hire illegal immigrants and says it needs some way to insure that guest workers will really leave the country when their time is up.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Commentator Ruben Navarette has his own concerns about the administration's immigration plan. He wants to make sure that guest workers don't overstay their welcome.

RUBEN NAVARETTE:

How time flies. President Bush has been talking about fixing the nation's immigration system since September 2001. That's when he and Mexican President Vicente Fox first floated the idea of matching US employers with Mexican workers. Now the administration has finally put its plan on the table, and frankly, it's positively underwhelming. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told Congress in October than he envisions immigration reform as a three-legged stool. The administration's plan calls for 1,000 new Border Patrol agents and 100 more work site investigators. But the third leg is the most important. It would allow millions of workers now in the US illegally to apply for three-year work visas with a three-year extension before returning to their home countries.

Despite what President Bush said in his speech in Arizona yesterday, that's amnesty. What else do you call it when people in the country illegally, prime candidates for deportation, are allowed to remain here? President Bush says that this guest worker plan would cut down on the number of people trying to enter the country illegally, but it doesn't work that way. Guest workers are not being brought in from another country; they're already here. Letting them stay won't have any impact whatsoever on how many other immigrants come to the United States. Those who want to come are still going to come, legally if possible and illegally if necessary. And these workers aren't really temporary. Six years is more then enough time for someone to put down roots in this country. Former Senator Alan Simpson was right when he quipped that, `There's nothing more permanent than a temporary worker.'

The stool needs a fourth leg, namely tougher employer sanctions and a real commitment to enforce them, against everyone from soccer moms to huge corporations. But despite President Bush's call yesterday for better work site enforcement, he'll never fully go along with tougher penalties. For the president, cracking down on employers stands in the way of a mutually beneficial business transaction between someone who needs a worker and someone who needs a job. And even if President Bush did believe in punishing employers, it's hard to imagine he'd find much support from members of Congress, who depend on business interests to fill their coffers at election time. It's simple economics and even simpler politics.

But this part isn't simple. What assurances do we have that guest workers will leave when their time is up, that they won't just go back to being old-fashioned illegal workers, unwelcome guests? The White House says it hopes these workers will step forward and voluntarily go home. Now that's what I call wishful thinking. If only the administration could take the problem of illegal immigration more seriously and come up with real-world solutions. But I guess now I'm the one doing the wishful thinking.

INSKEEP: Commentator Ruben Navarette is a syndicated columnist and a member of The San Diego Union-Tribune's editorial board. We will have another perspective on immigration reform tomorrow.

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