Staunching the flow

The several hundred volunteers with the Minuteman Project are pleased with themselves. Since they’ve been out patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border this month—"Americans doing the job Congress won’t do,” their motto reads—fewer people have tried to cross the 23-mile stretch of border in Arizona where they’re patrolling.

Of course, the border is more than 2,000 miles long, so the Minutemen’s effort is symbolic at best. No amount of patrolling can stop the flow of immigrants along such a porous border, not when the desire to escape poverty is so great that people are willing to risk death to do so.

Impoverished Mexican workers come here seeking jobs and find willing employers. Many American industries, including of course agriculture, depend on them as a source of cheap labor. The result: out-of-control illegal immigration that endangers lives, strains resources and threatens to destabilize several Western states.

There’s a solution to the problem, but it will require a degree of political will and openness to compromise that heretofore has been lacking. Four steps must be taken, but they must be taken together. They are:

1. Create a foolproof national ID card (the technology exists) for every citizen and legal immigrant.

2. Set up a temporary guest worker program along the lines President Bush has recommended (but done little to implement) and give each guest worker a foolproof card.

3. Allow guest workers to obtain driver’s licenses, so that they are subject to the same laws and enjoy the same privileges as other drivers.

4. Pass a law making it a serious misdemeanor, punishable by prison time and a meaningful fine, to hire anybody who does not have either a national ID card or a temporary guest worker card. Enforce the law.

Liberals don’t like the ID-card idea, fearing loss of privacy, but there’s really no privacy left to lose in this respect, and such a card is essential. There has to be some reliable, uniform method of distinguishing between legal and illegal residents. And allowing legal guest workers to obtain driver’s licenses would remove a hot-button issue now complicating the discussion on immigration while making the roads safer for all.

Finally, conservatives may not like the idea of holding employers’ feet to the fire, but no effort to control illegal immigration can ignore their role. And, given a foolproof way to verify legality, they’ll have no excuse for hiring someone who’s undocumented. Instead, a healthy guest worker program will assure them the employees they need.

The flow of illegal immigrants into this country will end only when those immigrants know they will not find work here. Anything short of that will fail.