A Lot To Love In Immigration Bill

generic immigration immigrants customs border senate congress capitol
This column was written by Fred Barnes.

Conservatives are sometimes blind to what's in their own best interest. This is especially true on immigration — all the more so on the narrower matter of the bipartisan immigration reform bill now before the Senate. The bill gives conservatives a large chunk of what they've wanted for years, plus some things they don't want. The balance is heavily in their favor, though, and they're crazy to oppose this once-in-a-lifetime chance to stop illegal immigration and enact sensible policies for legal immigration.

At the top of the list of what conservatives can get is significantly beefed-up security along America's southern border. And that's just what's in the initial bill negotiated by Republican Sen. Jon Kyl and Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. Without blowing up the Kyl-Kennedy compromise, border enforcement can be further strengthened through amendments. Indeed, it was strengthened, in the first week of debate in May, with an amendment by Republican senator Judd Gregg that requires "demonstrated" operational control of the entire border with Mexico.

Then there's the "trigger," a brainstorm of Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson. It delays further reform — including issuance of Z visas allowing the estimated 12 million illegals in the United States to stay indefinitely — until all the steps to tighten border security have been taken.

Admittedly, Washington has a credibility problem on border security. Illegals have been sprinting across the border for decades, all but unimpeded. So it's understandable most Americans don't trust Washington to choke off the flow of illegals and cut it to an acceptable trickle. Here again, the bill can be improved, notably by adopting a suggestion of columnist Charles Krauthammer that success in securing the border be quantified — he suggested a 90 percent reduction in illegal immigration — before the trigger is activated.

Next is a temporary worker program. We desperately need one. There's a labor shortage in America and not only in agriculture. That's why businesses employ so many illegal immigrants in the first place. The Senate bill limits the program to 200,000 foreign workers a year, but that can and should be enlarged. And in a bow to conservatives, guest workers must return to their native country. There's no special path to citizenship for them, as there was in last year's Senate immigration bill.

Perhaps best of all, there's a reform that's been drastically undervalued by conservatives and everyone else: the end of chain migration. Currently, extended families of immigrants are given preference in entering America, and then the extended families of these extended families get priority, and so on. The chain goes on forever. This so-called "family unification" has meant we have practically no control over who comes in. Sixty percent or more of legal immigrants in recent years have arrived through this policy.

Also terminated in the Kyl-Kennedy legislation, thank heavens, is the "visa lottery" that lets 50,000 immigrants in annually, their names selected at random. Among those who have benefited was Hesham Mohamed Ali Hedayet, an Egyptian with a Muslim Brotherhood background whose wife won a green card in the lottery. In a 2002 terrorist attack, he opened fire on the line of passengers at the El Al ticket counter at Los Angeles International Airport, killing two people.

While nixing these misbegotten programs, the bill would limit immigrant families to husband, wife, and minor children. And merit — measured by education, skills, and job experience — would become a major factor in issuing visas. In short, we would admit those who meet America's needs, not those who happen to be distant nephews of an immigrant who arrived decades ago. Here, too, the bill may need tinkering to assure that the smartest and most needed — scientists, engineers, technicians, the Ph.D. crowd essentially — get in.

It would be wonderful if these four reforms — indisputably conservative reforms, loathed by liberals — could be packaged in a single bill that would sail through the Senate and House and be signed by the president. But the chances of that hover just above zero. Attaching two more provisions favored by many conservatives — a squeeze on illegal immigrants by denying them many government benefits and a requirement that local authorities notify immigration officials when they arrest or detain an illegal — would reduce that likelihood to absolute zero.