As Congress Talks Reform, Public Trust at Risk

As I read news reports of congressional efforts to forge agreement on immigration reform, I have the queasy feeling that in their determination to get something done our elected representatives will repeat the mistakes of 1986.

That was the year when Congress passed the poorly named Immigration Reform and Control Act. Now, I fear, they will once again pass a law that will deliver sweeping legalization while failing to deliver credible worksite enforcement.

The stakes here are great, not only for our nation's ability to manage its own affairs, but also to maintain belief in our governmental institutions. That realization struck me this week as I listened to an anguished call to C-SPAN from a Boston contractor who had been hit hard by illegal immigration from Brazil.

The contractor said that because of illegal immigration "all the jobs around Boston are taken by Brazilians. And they're putting other contractors — painters, carpenters, roofers — out of business." He was careful to say that he did not blame the Brazilians for this distress. He blamed the American developers who hired them and the American politicians who let it happen.

Then, in the normal course of the week's reading, I came across a related observation from Britain, which is also grappling with the effects of massive immigration.

Liberal intellectual David Goodhart wrote in the Daily Mail that Britain's commitment to multiculturalism had undermined its people's sense of national identity and commitment to a common civic enterprise.

Said Goodhart: "For a democratic state to have any meaning, it must 'belong' to existing citizens. They must have special rights over non-citizens. Immigration must be managed with their interests in mind. But it has not been."

That reminded me of a statement from 1986, as Congress pushed awkwardly toward what became a desperate, disjointed, we've-got-to-pass-something agreement on IRCA. The statement came from the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, who directed the Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy, which Congress established to recommend reforms.

Hesburgh, a renowned humanitarian and former head of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, wrote: "It is not enough to sympathize with the aspirations and plight of illegal aliens. We also must consider the consequences of not controlling our borders. What about the aspirations of Americans who must compete for jobs and whose wages and work standards are depressed by the presence of illegal aliens?"

The Hesburgh Commission recommended both amnesty and worksite enforcement that would make it illegal to hire persons not authorized to work in the United States. As it submitted its recommendations to Congress, it offered a key piece of advice:

The Commission believes that a legalization program is a necessary part of enforcement, but it does not believe that the U.S. should begin the process of legalization until new enforcement measures have been instituted to make it clear that the U.S. is determined to curtail new flows of undocumented illegal aliens. Without more effective enforcement than the U.S. has had in the past, legalization could serve as a stimulus to further illegal entry. The Select Commission is opposed to any program that could precipitate such movement.

Congress, of course, ignored that advice. I have a sinking feeling that the deal that it finally cuts this year (if any) will repeat that failure by adopting controls that will fail again. That would deepen public cynicism and the growing sense that we cannot manage our nation's most pressing affairs.