When it comes to the divisive subject of immigration, on one point the competing camps, surprisingly, agree. The body politic is inflamed and afflicted. The carbuncle that is illegal immigration must be lanced. The fester must be allowed to drain and the wound to heal. Americans must discover a way to get back on our collective feet if we are to stand any chance of competing successfully in the flattened and increasingly borderless global economy.

Many pundits have addressed the hot-button issues. This blog and writers of similar sentiment have tried to debunk the immigration apocrypha that masquerade as news in the print, cable and broadcast media. This posting will take a different tack, and examine the fine points of recent reform proposals. Like so much vaporware, immigration-fix proposals have been floated for years, but little has been offered in the way of proposed legislation; still fewer of the bills have had any realistic chance of enactment.

Now comes a bipartisan group of legislators, led by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) and by Representatives Jim Kolbe (R-AZ), Jeff Flake (R-AZ) and Luis Gutierrez (D-IL), who on May 12 introduced The Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act of 2005 (SAOIA).

A Bit of Common Ground with the Bush Administration

On first review, the SAOIA bill tracks many of the principles and strategies espoused by President Bush to fix the ills of immigration in America.

As the President has urged, SAOIA would create a temporary worker program to permit immigrants here without benefit of lawful status to find a job with a willing employer who has tried but failed to recruit for an American worker. Family dependents of the workers would be allowed to remain here as well. Guest workers and their families would be permitted to travel abroad and reenter the U.S. legally. Temporary worker status would be granted for three years and could be extended once. President Bush and the bipartisan lawmakers also agree that future temporary workers should be allowed to enter legally from abroad and that the number of green cards issued each year should increase.

Pathways Diverge on the End Game

Mr. Bush parts company with the SAOIA supporters, however, on the issue of repatriation. The President wants the workers to leave the U.S. when their tour of temporary opportunity ends, and opposes any mechanism that would allow those illegally here to jump the queue or gain any advantages not available to others who – patiently and lawfully – have waited their turns from abroad. He refuses to accept the “A” word and believes that amnesty would reward wrongdoers who have flouted our laws. Hence, the President would create a mechanism for pensions to grow in the immigrants’ home countries as a lure for the workers to return there after their gig in America ends.

The SAOIA coalition in Congress also refuses to utter the big A; they say instead that their plan is no amnesty because it imposes costly fines which are punishment enough for otherwise law-abiding immigration violators who in most cases are struggling to eke out a modest living. Comprehensive immigration reform, these legislators argue, requires not just bipartisanship but realism as well. No reasonable migrants, the lawmakers maintain, will leave the U.S. once they are embedded here, holding down better jobs than available abroad and blessed with American-born, school-age children who have scant ties to the parents’ ancestral homelands.

Even more compelling to the “bi-partisans” is the real-world recognition that in an era of budget deficits and depleted enforcement resources, the government simply cannot force eight to ten million unwilling people to leave the country unless we were to adopt ultra-harsh measures that trounce on civil rights and American sensibilities.

So with no stomach and no money to evict this all-too-often victimized underclass, the SAOIA supporters argue for a long-term correction. They say that the undocumented will willingly come forward, pay their fines and enroll for screening and acceptance in an earned legalization program. The reward for turning themselves in is clear. Immigrants who enroll gain the chance to hold down legal jobs, enjoy worker protections, are encouraged to achieve some fluency in English, get to stay on the sunny side of the law, and follow a four-year pathway to permanent residence and then a five-year road to eventual U.S. citizenship. By creating a legal-compliance program (funded by user fees) for the law-abiding essential worker, SAOIA would redeploy government resources to the border, to hospital emergency rooms, to the push factor of economic frailty in the countries of emigration, and to the quest for true terrorists and criminals.

Another View: The Tighten-the-Vise Approach

A sizable group in Congress, mostly comprised of Republicans, has taken a very different approach. They maintain that immigration must be strictly controlled and that the level of legal immigration should be reduced or be placed under a moratorium until some unknown date in the distant future when robust economic conditions presumably return to America and illegal immigration shrinks to a population numbering in perhaps five digits. They argue that our borders must be made virtually impregnable, and that conditions for immigrants lacking lawful status must be made so intolerable as to provide them with no alternative but to pickup stakes and go home of their own accord.

The REAL ID Act takes this squeeze-them-till-they-leave approach. This new law, enacted just this month, was grafted, without benefit of committee hearings, onto unrelated, must-pass legislation (the Emergency Supplemental Appropriations Act which provides support for our soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and funds Tsunami relief). The law repeals portions of the December, 2004 intelligence restructuring act by requiring states to adopt uniform standards for driver’s licenses. While disclaiming the adoption of a national identity card, REAL ID essentially makes the driver’s license the de rigeur document needed to board a plane, a ship or train, open a bank account, qualify for a credit card, receive emergency-room care, get a library card, and of course, drive a car. REAL-ID also strikes a body blow against our country’s tradition of granting refuge to those fleeing religious and political persecution while stripping away the historical authority of the courts to hear the Great Writ (Habeus Corpus) in cases of immigrants who allege unlawful detention and other due process and statutory violations.

SAOIA: A Prescription for Wellness

Sounding more like a PR flack’s product label for a genetically modified soybean food than a restorative for the nation’s immigration ills, SAOIA is imprecisely touted as comprehensive reform. In reality, the proposed law would merely modify discrete provisions of the massive Immigration and Nationality Act, a hoary piece of oft-amended legislation that rivals the Internal Revenue Code in complexity and mind-numbing detail.

SAOIA does not, by any means, create open borders or revamp entirely the existing system of legal immigration. It does not remove the get-tough penalties enacted in 1996 to clamp down on immigration violators or restore the authority of the federal courts to overturn discretionary decisions of immigration officers. Instead, the law focuses on several of the most pressing ailments.

SAOIA addresses border security, authorizes assistance (but appropriates no new funds) to the states to deal with criminal aliens and reimbursement of health care costs for emergency services to undocumented immigrants, encourages the U.S. to enter into bilateral agreements with foreign countries, particularly with Mexico, in order to promote “circular migration patters,” and creates a government foundation to promote instruction in civics and the English language for newly legalized immigrants.

To be sure, SAOIA’s impact would nonetheless be breathtaking in scope, although the full effects of the new law would likely take many years to manifest. The law will change the way Americans and foreign citizens establish their right to be employed in the United States. It does so by establishing an electronic means of verifying against a government database that each new hire is authorized to work and increasing the fines on employers who knowingly hire persons with work authorization. SAOIA would create an array of full-fledged worker protections and significantly expand the authority of the U.S. Department of Labor to investigate and penalize employers for workplace violations. The law would create additional federal laws (but not supplant stronger state legislation) to prohibit unlicensed notarios and immigration consultants from representing immigrants or filing immigration applications with any federal agency. The new immigration reform law would also regulate the activities of foreign labor contractors and the U.S.-based employers who retain them to recruit guest workers from abroad.

More Immigration Reform Proposals to Come

The REAL ID law and the SAOIA proposal are likely only the first forays in the battle for reform of our outdated immigration laws. Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and John Kyl (R-AZ) have announced their intention to introduce their own version of comprehensive immigration reform, one that reputedly will focus more on border and interior enforcement, while offering more limited immigration benefits to the undocumented. Similarly, Senator Chuck Hagel (R-NB) has indicated that he too will propose comprehensive reform legislation. Congress therefore seems poised to engage on the subject of reform, and none too soon. As Senator Cornyn stated recently:

Of the over 10 million people currently in our country without legal status, and of the hundreds of thousands who enter every year undetected, some fraction of the population may harbor evil impulses towards our country. Yet it is a practical impossibility to separate the well-meaning from the ill-intentioned. We must focus our scarce resources on the highest risks. Law enforcement and border security officials should focus their greatest energies on those who wish to do us harm – not those who wish only to help themselves and their families through work. We cannot have a population of more than 10 million within which terrorists and their supporters can easily hide. And we cannot have that population afraid to cooperate with our law enforcement and anti-terrorism efforts. * * *

Our economy would badly suffer if we removed millions of workers from our national workforce – just as it would suffer if we eliminated entire stocks of natural resources from our national inventory. Our economy would be strengthened if all workers could simply come out of the shadows, register, pay taxes, and participate fully in our economy.

Any reform proposal must serve both our national security and our national economy. It must be both capable of securing our country and compatible with growing our economy. Our current broken system provides badly needed sources of labor, but through illegal channels – posing a substantial and unacceptable risk to our national security. Yet simply closing our borders would secure our nation only by weakening our economy. Any comprehensive solution must address both concerns.

Time will tell whether the country is ready and willing to heal its festering immigration wounds. If a grand compromise is to be achieved, however, a bipartisan Congress and the Bush Administration must take the lead and work together – a behavior pattern that is all too rare these days in Washington. If our elected officials are to resolve the problems of immigration, however, they should pay heed to the words of Andrew Carnegie, Scottish immigrant and personification of the American Dream, who wisely observed, “no man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it.” Or, for a more recent insight into the task of our political leaders, consider Thomas L. Friedman’s insight from his new cogent best-seller (The World is Flat, p. 280):

The job of the politician in America . . . should be, in good part, to help educate and explain to people what world they are living in and what they need to do if they want to thrive within it.