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Fencing over immigration

September 21, 2006

PICTURE A WALL ALONG the entire border with Mexico. The problem with the United States' current immigration policies, as we have previously illustrated in this space, is that there would be two contradictory signs posted on such a wall -- one reading "Do Not Trespass," the other reading "Help Wanted: Inquire Within."

Building an actual wall won't resolve the schizophrenia underlying our approach to immigration. That's why it's so disappointing to watch the U.S. Senate, which passed comprehensive immigration reform earlier in the year, considering following the path of the more shortsighted House by taking up a simplistic, enforcement-only measure -- to build, you guessed it, a fence along the border. Senators should vote "no" on the Secure Fence Act.

The bill would authorize the construction of 700 miles of at least double-layer fencing with all the fixings -- more patrols, unmanned aerial craft, sensors, satellites, radar, lighting and cameras -- along select parts of the nearly 2,000-mile southern U.S. border. The bill is before the Senate, which could vote on it as early as Monday.

Given that the Senate passed comprehensive reform only four months ago and appropriated some money for the fence last month, it should know that sound immigration reform requires addressing all three parts of the immigration puzzle at once: border security, the undocumented immigrants in the country and the visa system. A wall is fine, but not by itself. Addressing border security alone won't fulfill the economy's need for a legal supply of labor, and it will leave millions of illegal immigrants already here hidden in a vast underground. And fence or no fence, the 45% of illegal immigrants who overstay legal visas instead of returning across the border would continue to do so.

The visa system -- which offers a laughably insufficient number of work visas each year for low-skilled workers -- would still be backlogged and wouldn't be able to address the country's economic needs in the way a guest worker program and increased visas for low- and high-skilled workers would.

Members of the Senate who support comprehensive reform but who advocate the Secure Fence Act -- like Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist -- say other elements of comprehensive reform can come after November. Even if comprehensive reform were taken up at the start of the new Congress, however, elements such as a guest worker program need time to work properly. Waiting on a guest worker program would make the delays worse and would harm the economy.

If the Senate passes piecemeal enforcement measures, it will erode its ability to negotiate a more comprehensive approach with House leaders who myopically insist on treating immigration solely as a law enforcement issue.

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