Michael Barone: Better tools for immigration reform than in '86

BY MICHAEL BARONE Published: January 31, 2013
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As Barack Obama called for a bipartisan immigration bill in Las Vegas and Sen. Marco Rubio called for one on Rush Limbaugh's program, the chances for passage look surprisingly good.

But in some quarters — mostly from the right, but also from liberals like blogger Mickey Kaus — comes a complaint that deserves to be addressed.

We tried this once already, they say, in the 1986 immigration act. We were told that in return for legalization of illegal immigrants, we would get tough border control and strict enforcement against employers who hired illegals.

We got the amnesty, these folks say, but we didn't get effective border control or workplace enforcement. We got instead a huge flow of illegals, who number 11 million now.

Why should anything be different this time? It's a reasonable question, and I think there are reasonable answers.

The argument for granting legal status is that we as a nation have been complicit in tolerating a situation in which it's easy and profitable to violate the law. The price of changing that is granting legal status to otherwise unobjectionable illegals, since we can't deport 11 million people.

So what are the reasons to think such legislation would produce different results from those of the 1986 law?

Border enforcement. It's clear that we've been doing better and can do better still. Fences at some portions of the border have stopped illegal crossings, and we have unmanned aerial vehicles unavailable 25 years ago.

The eight senators' framework called for an “entry-exit system that tracks whether all persons entering the United States on temporary visas via airports and seaports have left the country as required by law.”

That suggests something feasible now that wasn't back then: an identity card linked to a database with biometric identification. India is now creating such a system for its 1.2 billion people. Why can't we do that for many fewer immigrants and visa holders?

High-skill immigration. The 1986 law left intact a system with more slots for collateral relatives like siblings than for high-skill graduates. Today, there's a big demand for the latter. The senators' framework calls for green cards for those with U.S. advanced science, math and tech degrees. Why keep these people out? Why tie them to one employer?

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