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Smith Column -- Immigration Enforcement First


Location: Washington, DC

As Congress continues conversations about immigration reform, border security and interior enforcement are two issues at the center of the debate. Everyone understands that any proposal without real border security and robust interior enforcement is unacceptable to the American people. That's because a lack of enforcement is the primary reason we're in this mess to begin with.

In 1986, Congress gave amnesty to three million illegal immigrants. Like now, that amnesty was agreed to with the promise of increased immigration enforcement and enhanced border security. Though amnesty was enacted, the enforcement never came.

Now, more than 25 years later, there are 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. According to estimates, seven million illegal immigrants hold jobs. Clearly, the 1986 amnesty didn't solve the problem of illegal immigration. If anything, it made matters worse.

As Congress debates whether to enact another amnesty, we should be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

There are three main enforcement efforts that should be completed before any discussion of legalization or amnesty for those who are in the U.S. illegally.

First, we must secure the border. In 2010, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office released a report on the current state of border security. The GAO found that only 44 percent of the Southern border was under "operational control" of the Border Patrol. That means we have the ability to detect and apprehend illegal immigrants on less than half the U.S.-Mexico border.

Even more disturbing, the report found that only 6.5 percent of the border is under "full control" of the Border Patrol. That's not just unacceptable, it's outrageous.

So what did the Obama administration do when they received this failing grade? They got rid of the system used to grade border security and engaged in a public relations campaign to counter the non-partisan, fact-based report. As it currently stands, we do not have any clear system for measuring border security.

According to media reports, the Senate proposal on immigration reform will call for a 90 percent apprehension rate at "high risk" areas of the border. But who determines what "high risk" is and how will apprehensions be measured?

For every person apprehended today, others sneak by. We need to increase border resources and personnel so that fewer illegal immigrants will enter undetected. And we need a real system of metrics to measure security and apprehensions along the border.

But a secure border is not only what we need to help stem the flow of illegal immigration. We must better enforce immigration laws inside the U.S.

The second enforcement measure is to implement an exit system for temporary visitors and workers. According to estimates, as many as 40 percent of illegal immigrants come to the U.S. legally on temporary visas. But rather than leaving when their visa expires, they stay.

In 1996, I co-authored a bill that required the enforcement of an entry-exit system. More than 15 years later, the exit portion of this program still hasn't been implemented. But without an exit system, we have no way of knowing who entered the U.S. legally and stayed illegally and indefinitely.

And third, we need to shut off the jobs magnet that draws millions of illegal immigrants to the U.S. Work site enforcement efforts protect scarce jobs for U.S. citizens and ensure that U.S. employers hire legal workers.

But under the Obama administration, work site enforcement is down 70 percent. That means there have been fewer arrests of illegal workers, fewer indictments and fewer convictions. So American workers lost job opportunities or saw their wages depressed by unnecessary competition.

Another way to reduce the jobs magnet for illegal workers is to make E-Verify mandatory. More than 430,000 employers have voluntarily signed up for the federal government's program that helps ensure that prospective hires are legally authorized to work in the U.S. E-Verify is free, quick and easy to use. And 99.5 percent of legal workers are confirmed immediately.

These are common sense enforcement measures that are greatly needed and long overdue.

But there is danger that Congress may repeat the mistakes of the past. Legalizing millions of illegal immigrants will not solve our problems. In fact, if history is a guide, it will only encourage more illegal immigration.

Let's not repeat our mistakes. The Senate proposal gives amnesty to everyone before the border is secure. That's not a smart or successful plan.

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