Path to immigration must be made clear
The crisis over immigration in this country is seen principally as the failure to cope with an estimated 11 million workers who have neither legal authorization to be here, nor accountability to the American government.
But this matter will never be resolved without sufficient attention being paid to the underlying problem: The pathway to citizenship or legal residency is strewn with impediments that frustrate anyone who tries to follow the rules.
President Bush's well-crafted address on immigration reform yesterday achieved two major objectives. As political rhetoric, it communicated a commitment to enforcement, pointedly aimed at his conservative critics on the issue. And it clearly defined the parameters of the challenge before Congress: finding a middle path between outright amnesty for millions and a strictly punitive, round-'em-up approach that makes no practical sense for a problem of this magnitude.
What was left unsaid, however, was the most troubling aspect of the speech. Bush did not address the inefficiencies of our immigration system and the resulting backlog that discourages people from trying to enter the country legally.
The fact that Bush proposed to reinforce the border patrol with 6,000 National Guard troops with high-tech surveillance and barriers underscores the desperation of the problem. The Guard, already overtaxed by serial deployments to the Persian Gulf, can hardly be seen as more than a finger in the dike.
And despite the president's assurances to the contrary, all that personnel and hardware would militarize our frontiers in a way that Mexico's leaders already have found provocative.
We all hope Congress can settle on a solution that balances border security with maintaining cordial relations with neighbors and allies.
Other proposals seem less problematic. The guest worker program would enable workers of long standing to pay a fine, undergo security clearance and become part of the taxpayer system — easing the strain on hospitals, schools and government services — without placing them ahead of anyone in the legal immigration process. But the bright hope of citizenship would then be before them.
Biometric identification cards would curb the problem of fraudulent documents; this would make it easier for the government to hold employers accountable for hiring workers who are here illegally.
But none of this makes the legal immigration process more efficient, which is the only way to permanently discourage illicit entries. The border patrol isn't the only frontier that's short-staffed; we also need more immigration workers to clear the backlog that forces legal immigrants to wait years more than necessary.
Bush may not have mentioned it in his speech, but those on Capitol Hill have got to see this as part of the task ahead.