Enforcement before amnesty

DAVID FRUM, a former speechwriter for President Bush, is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor to National Review. He coauthored "An End to Evil: How to Win the War o

THE SHELVING of the Senate’s Kyl-Kennedy immigration bill opens a chance for real reform — reform that respects the wishes and protects the interests of a large majority of the American people.

The next effort to fix the broken system must accomplish four things: Stop new illegal immigrants from entering the country. Induce existing illegals to return home. Reorient immigration policy to favor those who make a net economic contribution to the U.S. over those who do not. And bow to the will of the 70% of Americans who feel that current immigration levels are too high.

Illegal immigration is not some sort of uncontrollable natural phenomenon. It can and should be regulated.


Illegal immigrants come to the United States because the United States doesn’t do much to stop them. Yes, there’s a Border Patrol, but the patrol can’t be on every inch of the border. That’s why most Americans want a border wall. Elude the patrol — or overstay your visa, as one-quarter of illegals do — and it’s ollee-ollee-oxen free.

Illegal immigrants come to the U.S. to work. If we make it substantially more difficult for them to find work, substantially fewer of them will come, and many of those already here will return home.

It’s estimated that about 750,000 illegal immigrants enter the United States every year. If so, that implies that more than 10% of the illegal population arrived within the last 24 months, and about one-third arrived since George W. Bush’s inauguration. These people are not deeply rooted in the U.S.

Our first priority should be to create a system that allows employers to instantly and reliably check whether a job applicant is legally entitled to work here. Social Security cards should include photographs. Employers should be able to feed the card into a scanner and confirm that a prospective employee is eligible to work here.

And if an employer hires an illegal immigrant, he or she should be held accountable. Violators of the Clean Water Act can be fined up to $25,000 a day for a first offense; comparable liability would go far in enforcing immigration laws.

Beyond that, police should check the residency status of everybody they have legal cause to stop or question. All arrested illegals should be swiftly deported. States and localities should stop accommodating illegality with hiring halls and driver’s licenses issued with no regard for residency status. If we emphasized such enforcement, we probably would not need a border fence.

Eventually, of course, we’d bump up against an irreducible minimum of hard cases: illegal immigrants with strong family ties in the U.S., or with military service to their credit, or who have lived here for a decade or more without otherwise violating the law. At the end of half a decade of enforcement, amnesty for such people might well be appropriate. But enforcement has to come first.

The current U.S. legal immigration system does not serve the needs of the country much better than its tolerance of illegality. A decade ago, the National Academy of Sciences studied the aggregate social costs and benefits of current immigration policy. It estimated that U.S. immigration policy adds about $10 billion a year to the national income — that is, less than one-tenth of 1%, virtually nothing.

Yet for particular states and towns, mass migration is a cause of trauma and upheaval. We all know that the population of those without healthcare insurance is rising — with all manner of attendant woes. But did you know that three-quarters of the increase is driven by immigration? And all of this for virtually zero net economic benefit.

One thing the Kyl-Kennedy bill did right was to redirect U.S. policy away from family reunification and toward merit-based immigration. It went about it wrong, allowing too much time to elapse before the new system went into effect, which would have allowed additional millions of less productive immigrants into the country — and ultimately into Medicare, Medicaid and other costly social programs. Real reform means a policy that “recruits” small numbers of highly skilled immigrants — people who earn enough to buy their own health insurance and who pay more in taxes than they cost in social benefits — which would enrich the welfare of all citizens of the U.S.

I speak as an immigrant myself: Aside from urgent humanitarian refugee cases, U.S. immigration policy should serve the economic interests of the U.S. as a whole, not the individual wishes of particular industries, interest groups or families.

The abandonment of the Kyl-Kennedy bill heeds the wishes of most Americans. It opens the way for a new approach: Enforcement first, amnesty last, and lower numbers of more highly skilled immigrants above all.