And be acceptable politically
Border Patrol agents I spoke with were reluctant to be quoted on the record, but all agreed that a comprehensive solution that combines more and better border enforcement with a well-designed guest-worker program is necessary if real progress is going to be made. "We need to enforce employer sanctions at the same time we give employers a legal path to fill the jobs they must have workers for," one agent told me. A retired agent points to the Bracero ("strong arms" in Spanish) guest-worker visa program, which until 1964 brought millions of Mexican workers north to work in the agriculture, construction and service industries.
The Bracero program was a response to an immigration crisis that peaked in 1954 when arrests of illegal aliens topped the one million mark. Uner the Bracero program, some 300,000 Mexican workers entered the U.S. legally every year. The results were dramatic. By 1959 arrests of illegal aliens had fallen to 45,000 a year; they remained under 100,000 until 1964.
But the Bracero program fell victim to opposition from labor union leaders who viewed the program as competition for their members. In 1964 they convinced President Lyndon Johnson to end the program. With its demise the problem of illegal immigration returned. By 1976, apprehensions were up to 876,000. They have increased most years since then, reaching the current level of 1.2 million annual arrests.
Border agents tell me they could most effectively do their job and contain the spreading corruption within their ranks is if they didn't have to chase down people coming here to work and instead could focus their resources on catching gang members and terrorists. Support is building for a rational middle ground on immigration proposed by Rep. Mike Pence, chairman of the House Republican Study Committee. It would have the U.S. government contract with private employment agencies such as Kelly Services to establish offices called Ellis Island Centers in countries that today supply the most illegal alien labor.
"It would encourage illegal aliens to self-deport and come back legally as guest workers," says Mr. Pence. "They would benefit from no longer living in fear or in the shadows of life and they could return home for visits. And since employers who hired anyone without such a visa would face stiff fines, it would make it increasingly difficult over time for those who weren't legal guest workers to get jobs." A lot of complications need to be worked out, but the Pence approach recognizes the reality that border enforcement can work only if the pressure is reduced by providing a legal path for workers that recognizes the demands of our economy. It worked a half century ago with the Bracero program. Despite a tripling of resources and personnel on the border over the last decade, advocates of enforcement-only have yet to show that their approach can work in the real world.
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