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Ponnuru: Scrap delusional immigration bill and start over

The Senate has passed an immigration bill, and now all the great and good are urging the Republican-led House to pass it, too. It should decline.

That bill would substantially increase immigration into the United States, especially the number of low-skilled immigrants – something that Americans don’t want, that serves no pressing economic need and that will make assimilation harder.

The bill’s guest-worker programs subvert civic ideals by creating a large class of people who work here but can’t be full participants in American life. Its provisions against illegal immigration are weak – the Congressional Budget Office’s most optimistic take suggests the bill would reduce future levels by only half – and there is reason to think they will be set aside as previous enforcement promises have been.

The status quo, flawed as it is, is preferable to passing this bill. What would be better, though, would be for Congress to pass an alternative.

Like the current bill, an alternative would include provisions to enforce the laws against illegal immigration. But it could differ in refusing to simply throw money at the border, and it could take the problem of people who come to the country legally and then overstay their visas more seriously.

Also like the current bill, the alternative would include an amnesty for undocumented immigrants, but a less sweeping one, applying only to people whose illegal stay began while they were children and who have otherwise followed the law. This amnesty shares the assumption of the so-called Dream Act proposed in several recent Congresses: These people didn’t do anything wrong and have no other home.

It would go further than the Dream Act, though because it wouldn’t require young people to go to college or join the military to get permanent-residency rights. The path to citizenship for these young people should be more rapid than the one in the Senate bill, which stretches out the process for no purpose other than to be punitive.

The danger of a more sweeping amnesty is that it would encourage new illegal entrants by signaling that they will eventually be legalized, too. Congress should therefore hold off on that step while making sure that enforcement is up and running – and that the political forces that are supportive of amnesty have an incentive to make enforcement work rather than subvert it. Limited amnesty would be a good-faith gesture to show that the promise of future legalization isn’t merely words.

An alternative should also take a different approach on legal immigration. It should encourage immigration by highly skilled individuals, especially scientists and engineers, for the sake of higher economic growth. It should at the same time cut back on immigration based on reuniting extended families, which is nice but shouldn’t be a national priority. In fact, we should stop reuniting adult siblings altogether until we have brought in the backlog of spouses and children of legal residents.

And, finally, the alternative shouldn’t include a guest-worker program. We don’t need to import a helot class.

Such a bill might have a better chance of being enacted. It would offer a better chance of enforcement actually taking place. Supporters of the current approach would have a better shot at getting the amnesty they want. And Silicon Valley would have a better chance of getting the high-tech workers it seeks.

To make such an alternative a reality, opponents of the current Senate bill have to hold firm and keep anything like it from passing the House. Having then failed for a third time with this approach, supporters of the bill might be willing to try a new one.

But opponents would have to do something else, too: Accept a limited amnesty now and a bigger one later. Some House Republicans would surely balk, thinking that any amnesty is a retreat from the rule of law and that there is no demand for such a package of reforms in their districts.

Other Republicans, though, oppose the Senate bill for different reasons. They don’t think that every illegal immigrant already here should be deported or have to live in fear of it; they just don’t want today’s amnesty to lead to tomorrow’s. They appreciate that bending on this issue could improve their image nationally, especially among Hispanics, and make it more likely that they will someday have a Republican Senate and president to work with; they’re just not willing to pass bad legislation for this political purpose.

Polls suggest that the public favors tougher enforcement, is open to amnesty for some undocumented immigrants and opposes major increases in immigration. The public seems to me to have the right instincts on all these matters, and it can get what it wants if Congress writes a new bill.

• Ramesh Ponnuru is a Bloomberg View columnist, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior editor at National Review.

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