President Bush visits Mexico next week, and just in time. Mexico plans to be tougher on illegal crossings – not into the US, but from Central America – because too many migrants are taking Mexican jobs. In contrast, Mexico last year began to give maps to its citizens showing the safest illegal routes into the US.
No wonder many Americans have difficulty with moves in Congress to provide a "path to citizenship" for many of the estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the US. A bill to do just that, revised from last year's failed attempt, may be introduced in coming days. Senate leaders hope to pass it by May.
But until the US can demonstrate strong, long-term enforcement of its borders and crack down on the double crime of illegal hiring of illegal migrants, why should Congress create yet another incentive for unlawful crossings?
Perhaps during his visit Mr. Bush can persuade Mexico's new president, Felipe Calderón, to speed up reforms that would lift Mexico's economy and curb this embarrassing mass exodus of its citizens that only breeds more illegality. Mexico also needs to be as serious about patrolling its northern border as it is the southern one.
To its credit, the Bush administration appears to have gotten the message about the prime need for immigration law enforcement. It has made a few high-profile raids on businesses that hire illegal workers. It sent 6,000 National Guard troops to the border; doubled the number of patrol agents in Arizona; and added more helicopters, fencing, ground sensors, and detention centers. It also toughened procedures for sending illegal crossers back home.
Job-hunting Mexicans have gotten the idea, and fewer of them have attempted to cross the border, leading to a marked drop in arrests – more than 25 percent.
"This is the kind of tangible indication of progress that the American people have been waiting for," Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff told a Senate panel last week.
Mr. Chertoff also seemed to indicate a new administration coolness toward legalizing the illegals. "We cannot give those who are here illegally because they've broken the law a leg up and an advantage over those who have played by the rules," he said.
Congress needs to tackle immigration issues in stages, as even Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, now proposes. The first stage should be certification of border security and rigorous sanctions on employers. Achieving this will need to last into the next presidency, delaying other reforms. Bush has taken good steps. The next president, and the law-enforcement bureaucracy, need to show a sustainable track record.
This is not being anti-immigrant or antibusiness. Congress can lift quotas for legal migration to bring in more workers from many nations.
Better enforcement will be difficult. Just last week, the federal government had to delay by 20 months enforcement of the 2005 Real ID Act that requires states to adopt secure driver's licenses that would help spot illegal aliens and terrorists as well as curb identity fraud. States are balking at the mandated changes.
Congress should not get tangled up over how to legalize illegal migrants, but needs to first show that current laws can be enforced.