May 15 2006

A Roadmap to Immigration Reform

NOTE: This op-ed appeared in papers throughout South Carolina beginning Sunday, May 14, 2006.

South Carolinians are frustrated with our immigration system. They know the system is broken and we all pay the price. It’s a concern I share, along with President Bush, who I recently met with at the White House to discuss this issue. As a former border-state governor, he clearly understands the seriousness of the immigration problem facing our nation and the need to comprehensively address the problem. So how do we get a handle on a situation currently out-of-control? First, we must secure our borders. Over the last decade, the number of people illegally crossing the border has dramatically increased. Without better border security any congressional immigration reform is going to fail. Under the Senate immigration compromise I support, we will authorize the hiring of 12,000 new Border Patrol agents over the next 5 years. We also create fences and walls in certain high-traffic areas to prevent illegal crossing. In other areas, we create a ‘virtual’ fence which relies on cameras, motion detectors and other technological devices. I authored a provision, accepted in committee, which gets more individuals with military backgrounds into the Border Patrol. Due to modernization, in the coming years we’re expected to have a reduced number of people serving in some areas of the military. These veterans, with years of military experience and training, are excellent candidates to serve in our expanded Border Patrol. Second, increase employer enforcement and verification of legal workers. Comprehensive immigration reform should simplify our laws to solve the problems facing employers. In the compromise, we establish an efficient worker verification system that lets employers know if the person standing before them can legally work in the United States. Particularly important is preventing the rampant fraud in our current system where Social Security numbers and drivers licenses are fraudulently procured. Replacing that system with a tamper-proof verification card containing fingerprints and other identifying data of guest workers would be beneficial. After reforming the system and giving employers the opportunity to comply with new laws, it’s imperative we have the national will to punish employers who intentionally break the law. We have been too lax in enforcement of our employment laws. With winks-and-nods people looked the other way as illegal immigrants filled positions. As a result the illegal workforce has become firmly entrenched in some of our state’s largest and most important industries such as agriculture, construction, and tourism. Third, address the estimated eleven million illegal immigrants in the U.S. We must come up with an honest and rational solution on how to treat those who are already in this country illegally. Like President Bush, I don’t think we’re physically able remove eleven million illegal immigrants. We do not have the resources or detention space to do this. Also, an immediate roundup and deportation of this workforce would send our economy into a tailspin. This ‘solution’ is simply not an option. The Senate compromise brings illegal immigrants already in the U.S. more than two years out of the shadows and requires them to meet rigorous standards in order to remain in our country. In essence, we place them on 11 years of probation. The terms are strict but fair. They will have to register with the government, be proficient in English, show proof of employment, pay $2,000 in fines, undergo 2 extensive and comprehensive background checks to ensure they do not have a criminal record or pose a danger to society, pay back taxes, and attend a class on American civics. Failure to meet any of these requirements would result in deportation. Guest-workers must meet very strict criteria over an eleven year period before going to the back of the line to apply for citizenship. The program isn’t amnesty. Amnesty is what President Carter gave to draft dodgers who fled to Canada. Our immigration system has been in disarray for so long there are generations of families with legal and illegal members. Some families have parents here illegally and children that are American citizens. Some husbands are illegal while the wives are legal. More importantly, there are many military members, particularly young Hispanic Marines serving in Iraq and Afghanistan who are legal citizens by virtue of being born in America. They have chosen to fight and die for their country. Creating felons out of their parents, illegally in the country, is not going to make America a better place. The last days of the Senate session before Easter recess represented the best and worst of the United States Senate. Our comprehensive immigration reform bill combining border security, employer verification, and guest-worker provisions would have garnered near 70 votes on the Senate floor. The substance of the deal held, only to be hijacked by the unfair procedural tactics of Democratic Leader Harry Reid. It’s now time for the Senate to get back to work.