Amnesty is not the answer to immigration reform

Speaking recently in Mexico City, President Obama reiterated his desire to pass immigration legislation this year. While a formal bill has yet to be unveiled, I expect the president’s approach may end up looking a lot like the ill-advised immigration bill Congress voted down two years ago. That legislation was roundly rejected by people across Mississippi and the rest of the nation because it would have provided amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants in our country.
According to a recent New York Times article, we could see movement on the immigration issue soon. Earlier this month, the Times quoted a high-ranking White House official saying President Obama “intends to start the [immigration] debate this year.” The article indicated no formal strategy has been put in place, but suggested the president would speak publicly on the topic next month, then spend this summer building support for legislation in the fall that would likely offer amnesty for the estimated 12 million people in the country illegally.
As a founding member of the Senate Border Security and Enforcement First Caucus, I agree that illegal immigration is a major issue that needs to be addressed. However, I oppose amnesty as the solution.
The U.S. illegal immigrant population is the highest it has ever been. An estimated one in 25 residents currently living in our country is here illegally. The nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center estimates that approximately 850,000 illegal immigrants enter our country each year. These statistics underscore the need to concentrate on sealing our borders.
I have been to the border and met with border patrol agents on several occasions, including last month. After my first visit in 1998, I realized the significant challenge our agents are up against and the additional support they need to secure our borders. I have since worked to provide them with the funding and resources needed to do their job more effectively. Of note, I joined in support of the Secure Fence Act, which was signed into law in October 2006. The legislation authorized the construction of nearly 700 miles of reinforced fence along our southern border. Approximately half of that fence has been completed, and with an additional $775 million appropriated for it last year, I am hopeful the fence will be completed by 2010.
Increasing security efforts along our southern border is not the sole solution. We also need to provide America’s employers with the tools to verify whether their workers – or potential workers – are in the country legally. Employment opportunities act as a magnet for illegal immigrants, helping draw them across our border. However, if illegal immigrants cannot find work they will be much less inclined to break our laws by entering our country.
One tool that has been particularly successful in this effort has been the E-Verify program. This online tool allows employers to check the legal status of workers. While not perfect, E-Verify provides businesses and farmers in Mississippi and across the country with the best technology available to verify a prospective employee’s status. E-Verify is set to expire at the end of September. Congress should act to provide a long-term extension of the program so that employers have the resources they need to ensure their employees are here legally.
As we think about how to address illegal immigration, we should concentrate on what works, including stronger enforcement of existing immigration laws and strengthening of our border and interior enforcement. At the same time, we should recognize what has not worked and ensure we do not make the same mistakes we have in the past.
Using history as our guide, we know that amnesty is not the answer. Congress previously tried addressing the issue through amnesty with the Simpson-Mazzoli Act of 1986. The bill promised to solve illegal immigration by offering amnesty to nearly three million illegal immigrants. Now, just over 20 years later, we have four times as many immigrants illegally in our country.
If President Obama intends to bring forward immigration reform this year, he should do so in a manner that respects the rule of law our nation was built upon. Offering the failed solution of amnesty would not do so, and it would not solve this problem.

Alisha Wilson