PAUL GIGOT: This week we take a look at an issue that will take center stage this year -- immigration. Congress is getting ready to consider a flurry of immigration reform legislation, ranging from proposals to create renewable three-year guest-worker visas to proposals for hiring another 10,000 investigators to find and deport illegal workers. The president has made reform a major priority, and it is going to be a bitter fight. Our briefing is from correspondent Rick Karr.
RICK KARR: The human tide across America's southern border is relentless. Every day, more than 1,000 people illegally enter the U.S. to work and live. Just last week, the Mexican government acknowledged that reality with a new booklet full of advice aimed at making the crossing less dangerous. On the U.S. side of the border, anti-immigration activists argue that the human tide amounts to an invasion.
KATHY McKEE: I think it's a fact of life that our culture is under attack.
RICK KARR: Some of their neighbors argue that those migrants are just responding to the laws of supply and demand, and chasing the American dream.
ALFREDO GUTIERREZ: -- To make sure that our children have a future. We're here for the same reasons that every other immigrant in the history of this country has been here.
RICK KARR: What both sides of the debate agree on is that American immigration policy isn't working work very well. And so right now Congress is going through all of the arguments in an effort to reform U.S. immigration law.
That battle over a handful of immigration bills and proposals on Capitol Hill is shaping up like one that played out in Arizona last year: voters approved Proposition 200, which makes it harder for illegal immigrants to get government benefits. Its supporters say they hope that discourages people from crossing the state's southern border. Kathy McKee, who founded the group that put the proposition on the ballot, says illegal immigrants drain taxpayers' money.
KATHY McKEE: We cannot be the lifeboat, the education system, the medical system for the entire world. And really, why should we, when these countries can take care of their own people?
RICK KARR: On the other side immigrants' rights activist Alfredo Guttierez says the millions of Mexicans who are already in the U.S. illegally are the ones who are under attack.
ALFREDO GUTIERREZ: The level of hostility is palpable. People feel it. They know it. And it's focused on the immigrant. It's not focused on the public policy.
RICK KARR: Some of Arizona's biggest businesses joined Gutierrez in opposing the proposition. Produce farmers admit that hundreds of thousands of farm workers are here illegally. But without them, they say, the industry would die.
GARY PASQUINELLI (Pasquinelli Produce Company): Without foreign workers we could not harvest our crops. We couldn't get it done without them. I know that they're values and their culture and their morals that they bring is good for our country. I don't want to be protected from these people. I think they're going to revitalize America.
RICK KARR: Arizona's booming construction industry also depends on foreign workers, legal and illegal, because native-born U.S. citizens won't work at prevailing wages.
RON MCGEE (Superstition Carpentry, LLC): I could use an extra 150 carpenters right now. I can't find them, you know? There are no more.
RICK KARR: Federal law requires employers to check the legal status of their workers. But business owners say it's almost impossible not to hire the occasional illegal worker. Documents are relatively easy to forge, and federal law only requires employers to affirm "to the best of their knowledge" that a workers papers "appear to be genuine."
Businesses in Arizona and elsewhere are pinning their hopes on federal legislation that would make it easier for migrants to work legally in the U.S. President Bush wants a guest worker program.
PRESIDENT BUSH: ...that will match willing foreign workers ... with willing American employers ... when no Americans can be found to fill the jobs.
REP. JEFF FLAKE (R-AZ): There has simply got to be a temporary worker program in order to deal with the situation at the border and the situation of those who are here illegally now.
RICK KARR: Arizona Republican Jeff Flake is co-sponsor of a House bill that would give foreigners already in the U.S. illegally the right to work for three years, then renew for three more.
REP. JEFF FLAKE: We are going to have a foreign work force in this country for a long time. Now we can either keep it illegal or make it legal. That's our choice.
RICK KARR: The bill would also give undocumented workers a chance to stay as legal residents. And that's raised the ire of some of Flake's fellow Republicans.
REP. J.D. HAYWORTH (R-AZ): We're not in the middle of just illegal immigration. We are in the midst of a full-scale invasion. And the problem that I have with what some in our Congressional delegation have offered, is that it says, "Let's set up a whole group of new laws," which begs this question. "If people aren't obeying existing laws, what makes us think they'll obey any new laws?"
RICK KARR: Hayworth says the bottom line is national security. In the post-9/11 environment, the U.S. can't afford to open its borders just because it's good for business.
REP. J.D. HAYWORTH: We ignored the problem at our own eventual peril.
RICK KARR: The threat of terrorism has made immigration even more contentious than usual. The two sides don't even seem to be speaking the same language, according to Lindsay Lowell of Georgetown University, who's advised Democrats and Republicans.
LINDSAY LOWELL, PH.D: This debate is so fractured by people who adamantly believe not just different things about how we should manage the flow of migration but fundamentally what migration and immigration means. With those kind of fundamental differences and opinions and values about what an immigrant is, it's difficult to reach some kind of consensus. Compromise is necessary.
PAUL GIGOT: Joining us for this part of the program is senior editorial page writer Jason Riley, who covers immigration issues. Jason, I want you to take on that point that J.D. Hayworth made about an "invasion" coming over the border from Mexico. He's a congressman from Arizona on the frontlines, I guess, of the immigration issue. You spent some time in that border area. Is he right?
JASON RILEY: Well, the congressman is engaging in the type of political demagoguery that plays well in border states and it's easy to see why from the segment. The people who live in states like Arizona are bearing the brunt of the influx and they're frustrated. And they should be. It's the federal government's job to control our borders and clearly the federal government isn't getting the job done. Many of these illegals coming to Arizona aren't stopping there. They're going on to places like Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. So these people living in these states on the border bear the cost of illegal immigration in terms of health care costs and emergency care, and in terms of litter and crime and so forth, without bearing any of the benefits, or receiving any of the benefits that come with increased economic activity. And they're frustrated.
PAUL GIGOT: Yeah, Bret?
BRET STEPHENS: But is that really true? Arizonans or Californians are not getting the benefit of cheaper labor from illegal immigrants in terms of maids and gardeners and --
PAUL GIGOT: Construction workers.
BRET STEPHENS: Construction workers, and all of the services -- agriculture -- all of the services that --
JASON RILEY: They are, Bret. My point is simply that this frustration isn't necessarily born of nativism on the part of people living in these border towns. They have a legitimate beef with the way the federal government is managing our border. Now the question is what we should do about it.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, let's talk about that, because enforcement is the easy answer. Let's enforce our borders, as the cry goes. But I'm old enough to know we started trying that in 1986 with something called Simpson-Mazzoli. We've been doing it a lot. So this is not a new phenomenon. We've been trying it, have we not, Jason?
JASON RILEY: Oh yes, we have been trying it and it hasn't been working. Under Clinton, we went after the California corridor in San Diego, and the El Paso corridor in Texas. What that had the effect of doing is funneling people in through Arizona, where they assumed the natural barriers -- the mountains and the deserts -- would keep people out. It has not worked, and so the president now wants to try something new, the guest worker program.
PAUL GIGOT: Well, it is possible, is it at all possible to really seal the border with Mexico? You've lived in Mexico, Bret? Do you think so?
BRET STEPHENS: Well, probably not. I mean, of course, anything is possible. The Soviets showed that they could seal a border from north to south of Europe. Now I don't know if that agrees with our values and our sense of fair play. I also don't think it makes particular sense in terms of the illegal immigrants we have in the country right now. I mean, people forget one of the reasons that illegal immigration has gone up at the same time that we've expanded our border efforts is that we've made it paradoxically more difficult for mainly Mexicans, Latin Americans, to move back and forth. They have to go through such an ordeal to get through this death trap corridor in Arizona to get to the United States that they're not inclined to return. When there was less enforcement among the border and it was relatively easy to go back, they would circulate on a seasonal basis.
JASON RILEY: Right. And you touch on a point, which is it's not in our economic interest to seal the border, per se. What it is in our economic -- or what is in our both economic and national interest, in terms of security, to do, is to regulate the flow, which is what Bush wants to do with this temporary program. He wants us to know who's coming. And provided that most of these people are coming for jobs, if we give them more legal ways to come those people will use those legal ways to come here. And that means our border security can concentrate on a smaller pool of people who are coming here to do us harm, instead of chasing down the dishwashers and the busboys.
PAUL GIGOT: But post-9/11 there's an argument being made that kind of conflates immigration -- and from all parts of the world, including Mexico -- and says we have to stop them because there are terrorists going to come over our border. Is that a legitimate argument, Melanie?
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: It's legitimate to the extent that the critics are correct that there are Al Qaeda elements in Latin America who will, presumably, see an opening through our southern borders to get into the United States. But I actually think President Bush's proposals will enhance our security, because it will help us keep track of people who are legitimate. Right now we can't do that.
PAUL GIGOT: You know, there's a little history to this, the guest worker program, called the Bracero program in the 1950s and 60s. The number of arrests of illegal immigrants in this country fell over about a 15-year period, from 1.1 million a year to 100,000, when we had this guest worker program at that time. It was stopped in the mid 60s, largely because of objections from some unions. But I think it goes to show you that if you would have some guest worker mobility -- people being able to say, you know what, if I go back to my home place in Mexico and I don't have to risk my life coming back over the border, maybe I'd be able to go back more freely and we'd have fewer people who want to break the law.
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: I also think this has an important effect on our economy. Our sister publication, BARRON'S MAGAZINE, reported earlier this month that the shadow economy of the United States is close to one trillion dollars, and that it's going faster than the legitimate economy. And this is due mostly to illegal immigrants. This is not a good portent. We don't want to turn into --
PAUL GIGOT: Belgium?
MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: Belgium. [LAUGHTER] Or Italy.
PAUL GIGOT: Most of the countries in Europe have rescinded, were slow to immigration and they suffered economically.
Let's talk about the politics here in the time we have left, because David Frum, who used to work for us and now works for NATIONAL REVIEW, wrote a cover story in that magazine saying that this issue -- President Bush insists upon pushing this issue this year, it's going to split the Republican coalition right down the middle. Do you agree with that?
BRET STEPHENS: Well first of all, I can't resist but mention that typically conservative polemicists who oppose immigration most vocally tend to come from countries like Canada and Britain and elsewhere. But leaving that aside, no, I don't think that --
PAUL GIGOT: David is from Canada. That's the point.
BRET STEPHENS: No, I don't think that's the effect. I mean, first of all immigration is one of those issues that you think is going to play well, you think that this is what voters really care about. But time after time at the polls, that is not the core issue for voters. That's not what decides, that's not what turns their vote.
Secondly, I think we have to be very wary of the example of Pete Wilson, the former governor of California. Pete Wilson rode just to a second term as governor of California on Proposition 187, a strong anti-immigrant proposition, a strong anti-immigrant stance. Well, that basically sunk the repub-- until Arnold came around in a very round-about way, that basically sunk the Republicans in California. It certainly sunk it at the presidential level. We have to face, conservatives have to face the fact that we have a large and fast-growing Hispanic minority in this country. These are people who should be embraced. They should be embraced economically, but they also should be embraced politically. President Bush's vote totals among Hispanics has gone up. His brother polls very well among Hispanics. This is not only the future of the country, it's also partly the future of the GOP. If we decide to play a politics of saying, well, no, they're not part of us, they're going to migrate right to the Democratic party and the GOP will pay the consequences.
PAUL GIGOT: But Jason, there really is still a very large chunk of the Republican party in the House, particularly -- 60, 70 people -- who are dead set against this kind of thing.
JASON RILEY: Right.
PAUL GIGOT: What are they really -- how strong are they, and what are there concerns?
JASON RILEY: In a sense, the real debate isn't about the people in the segment that you saw coming now. I think both sides of the aisle can agree on regulating that flow somehow. The real debate is going to be within the Republican party. It's going to be about what to do with the illegal immigrants already in the country. Estimates vary -- 10, 12, eight million -- but it's going to be about whether any new program that we put in place requires these people to go back where they came from and reapply, or receive some sort of amnesty from the President in order to stay here and continue to work. He calls it an "earned amnesty."
PAUL GIGOT: Whether they'll be able to be on the path to citizenship or not.
JASON RILEY: Right.
PAUL GIGOT: That's going to be a core part of --
JASON RILEY: That's what the debate is going to be. The Democrats are going to push for full amnesty, Republicans -- or I'm going to say one wing of the Republican party along with the Democrats are going to push for earned legalization, the other is going to say make them go back first.
PAUL GIGOT: Quickly, is he going to get it done or not, Jason?
JASON RILEY: I think he will, because I think it's something that he wants to do.
PAUL GIGOT: Okay, and when he puts his capital behind something he usually gets it. Okay, last word, thank you. Next subject.