Time to build trust on immigration

The time is not ripe for reform, and should be used to improve enforcement against illegals.

If Janet Napolitano had her way, the nominee to head Homeland Security would take a two-track approach to solving America's illegal immigration problem. Enforcement, yes, says the Arizona governor, and also immigration "reform." She's unlikely to get her way – but she can turn that into a plus.

To push border and employer enforcement while also changing laws to accommodate new temporary workers and absorb illegal aliens already here, Governor Napolitano would need the cooperation of Congress. The prospect of that happening anytime soon is as remote as the Arizona desert, and the politics just as inhospitable.

In 2006 and 2007, Congress failed at compromise on illegal migration, an issue that confronts many countries.

Americans clearly wanted stronger enforcement of the nation's immigration laws. This had to come before any attempt at reforms to create a program for temporary workers to enter the country legally or to allow undocumented migrants in the US to walk a punitive path to citizenship, which many deem amnesty.

Now the topic has slipped down the nation's to-do list, crowded out by a terrible economy and an apparent drop in the number of illegals. With economists talking about 10 percent unemployment in 2009, the timing is all wrong for the reform part of Napolitano's equation.

But this creates an opportunity to build on the Bush administration's recent enforcement efforts.

A total of 670 miles of border fencing was expected to be completed by the end of 2008 – pretty much all of the 700 miles authorized by Congress in 2006. Napolitano harrumphs at the barrier ("show me a 50-foot wall and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder"), but it's a speed bump that makes the border patrol's job easier.

Meanwhile, the number of agents guarding the nation's borders has doubled since 2001. Penalties against employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers have also increased – with total arrests up 27 percent in 2008. Prosecution and removal of illegal aliens have risen. This year, 45,000 employers registered for E-Verify, the federal program to check an employee's name, birth date, and Social Security number.

Tougher enforcement and economic recession have reduced the number of apprehensions at the US-Mexican border to their lowest level since 1976 – with apprehensions being a measure of illegal crossings.

But enforcement can't stop here. The department must find a more humane way to conduct work-site raids and run detention centers. It needs to settle on biometric identification measures and be able to track visitors on temporary visas. Most important, it needs to defend its enforcement budget, as Congress will look to cut programs.

Napolitano is a very popular governor in a border state. She's shown compassion, vetoing a bill that would have cut off instate tuition for undocumented college students (her reasoning: Why should children pay for the crimes of parents?). But she's also tough. In 2006, she called on the National Guard to protect the border because the feds had failed. She signed the most rigorous employer sanctions law in the country.

If she uses the next few years to build trust as an enforcer of the nation's immigration laws, she may find more receptivity for reforms.

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