SAN DIEGO -- Angry over my criticism of hateful legislative tantrums such as Arizona's new law to ferret out illegal immigrants, some readers have demanded to know my solution to America's immigration problem.
I thought they'd never ask. The first thing we need to do is avoid making matters worse. We only compound the problem by building walls and fences that make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to go home and visit family members; they're afraid they won't be able to come back, so they remain on this side of the border. Or by deputizing local police to enforce federal immigration law, thereby sending immigrants underground and making them easy prey for criminals. Or, in what likely will be the next great battle, by denying U.S. citizenship to the American-born children of illegal immigrants, seemingly in violation of the 14th Amendment. Every one of these knee-jerk proposals hardens positions, divides people and creates a whole new set of problems to be dealt with.
We can also pass on the idea proposed by Tom Mullins, the Republican nominee for a New Mexico congressional seat. During a recent radio interview, Mullins suggested that if the United States really wanted to secure the U.S. -- Mexico border, it could place land mines along the international boundary -- and "put up signs in 23 different languages if necessary." Mullins later insisted he was "not suggesting we do that" but only repeating an idea he had heard on the campaign trail. Guess who isn't ready for prime time? Candidates should know better than to pick up on ideas from the campaign trail that are insane and inflammatory. Mining the border is both.
Let's try this instead:
- Provide the Border Patrol with all the tools and equipment it needs to do its job. When I asked a top official in the agency for a wish list, he suggested better-quality surveillance equipment, tunnel detection capability, and improved roadways so agents can get to the border that much quicker.
- Create a tamper-proof ID card that all Americans would carry in their wallets so employers could know exactly who is eligible to work and who isn't. This way, we eliminate the excuse that employers didn't know they were hiring an illegal immigrant.
- Pass a federal "three strikes" law to get tough with employers who repeatedly hire illegal immigrants. First offense, a warning. Second, a fine. Third, jail. And apply the law not just to companies but to homeowners who rely on domestic workers.
- Create an earned pathway to legal status for illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least 10 years but make it conditional, where applicants pay a fine, undergo criminal background checks and return to their home country to be processed for legal re-entry.
- Make sure what is awarded is legal status and not U.S. citizenship. In fact, institute a 10-year ban on becoming a citizen for any illegal immigrant who gets legal status this way.
- Institute a 10-year ban on public benefits for the newly legalized and their children -- welfare, food stamps, government-subsidized housing, etc., with the exceptions being public education and emergency health care.
- For those illegal immigrants who fail or refuse to meet the conditions to remain in this country legally, continue internal enforcement measures such as workplace raids -- not by local police but by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents -- and speed up the deportation process by limiting appeals.
- Finally, to relieve pressure at the border, increase the number of legal immigrants admitted to the United States each year from the current level of about 1 million to 3 million, or about 1 percent of the U.S. population. Also, remove the emphasis on family reunification and instead make decisions on who should enter based strictly on the needs of the work force at any given time.
It's not hard to come up with ideas on how to fix a broken immigration system. The tough part is getting members of Congress to stand up to the bullies and special interests in both parties -- nativists on the right, labor unions on the left -- and finally do what needs to be done. When it comes to immigration reform, the problem on Capitol Hill isn't a shortage of imagination. It's a lack of political courage. And, unfortunately, for that, there is no quick fix.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is email@example.com.