If Washington really wanted to, it could decidedly shrink the number of immigrants illegally crossing the borders and living in the United States: Just enforce the law.
As it is, immigration law appears tough. But illegal immigrants and their employers can easily avoid being caught. Given that there are more than 10 million undocumented residents (a number growing by about 500,000 a year), the chances of an illegal immigrant being deported are minuscule. In 2003, only 445 undocumented workers were arrested at a job site in the US. That's out of a total population of 6.3 million illegal workers (a number that excludes nonworking spouses and children).
"We must replace the old 'nudge nudge, wink wink' system - overly strict laws that we can't, and in many cases don't even try to, uphold - with a new bargain: realistic laws, enforced to the letter," said Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow with the Manhattan Institute, at a Senate hearing late last month.
Americans would like Congress to tackle illegal immigration.
"There does seem to be, post-9/11, greater resistance to immigration," says Ana Maria Arumi, research director for Public Agenda in New York.
A recent survey of 1,004 adults by that nonpartisan public policy group found that tightening immigration ranked second among a list of proposals to improve US security. (Improving intelligence operations topped the list.) Three quarters of respondents gave the US a "C" or worse in protecting US borders. Nearly one-quarter gave a failing grade.
The public may still like the idealistic inscription on the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...." To this, Americans have added, "but not your potential terrorists."
Reacting to such concerns, Congress passed the Real ID Act this spring. It requires states to design their driver's licenses to meet federal antiterrorist standards by 2008. Identification documents, such as passports or Social Security cards, are to be checked against federal databases.
Also, two major immigration bills are before Congress, and President Bush has proposed a guest-worker immigration plan.
Whether Congress will pass a new law this year is unknown. Immigration restrictions will be opposed by law firms and others that make their living from immigrants, churches hoping to acquire new members from abroad, and businesses that benefit from illegal workers' low wages.
A massive national sweep to deport illegal immigrants is unrealistic. "[T]he dirty secret is that we couldn't deport 10 million illegal immigrants if we wanted to," Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas has noted. He's an author of the more stern of the two bills before Congress.
For one reason, it would be costly. A new study by Rajeev Goyle and David A. Jaeger for the Center for American Progress in Washington calculates the cost of mass deportation to be at least $206 billion over five years. The annual cost of $41 billion would exceed the entire budget of the Department of Homeland Security ($34.2 billion) and would be more than double the annual spending on border and transportation security ($19.3 billion).
The study calculates the costs of apprehension, detention, legal processing, and transportation to countries of origin. It assumes that 20 percent of illegal immigrants would leave voluntarily.
Given the horror stories that would arise from a forced exodus, it would soon be a political impossibility.
So, some suggest, the only alternative is some form of legalization of the illegal immigrants. But don't call it "amnesty," which is a highly unpopular idea.
An alternative strategy would involve making it harder for immigrants to find and keep jobs in the US by enforcing the law against hiring illegal immigrants.
"Cracking down on employers is important," says Mr. Goyle. "If jobs were less available [to illegal immigrants], presumably fewer people would come" across US borders without valid documents or overstay their legal visas.
A plan by Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, would combine an increase in conventional enforcement - arrests, prosecutions, deportations, asset seizures, etc. - with expanded use of a system for verifying the status of new employees and those applying for a mortgage, car loan, or driver's license. The idea would be "to make it as difficult and unpleasant as possible to live here illegally," he says.
If the plan were implemented, Mr. Krikorian says, it would prompt illegals to deport themselves, gradually reducing the illegal population. "There must be an end to the climate of impunity for border jumping, and illegal employment, and fake documents, and immigration fraud," he adds.
The Real ID Act could establish de facto a national identification system. An existing experimental system for verifying the legal status of new hires could be made compulsory, rather than voluntary. Employers should face real penalties for hiring illegal immigrants, not slaps on the wrist.
The problem with the two major bills before Congress, the other being that of Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts, is that they assume a federal bureaucratic capacity to screen millions of immigrants using new systems. Says Krikorian: "That does not exist."