Line in the Sand

By James Q. Wilson and Peter Skerry

President Bush has tried to find a middle ground where many political groups can join an effort to do something about illegal immigration. But the country is so divided that it is not clear that much consensus is possible. So we would like to return to some fundamentals.

Foremost is the public's demand that the free flow of illegal aliens across the southern border be stopped or drastically curtailed. That will not occur if we assign, for six months, a few thousand National Guardsmen there. This gesture, perhaps useful for symbolic purposes, will not have practical significance: 6,000 people, none with the power to make an arrest, stretched over 2,000 miles of (mostly) unfenced desert, and reduced by the need for sleep and training, means two guardsmen every mile.

Nor is it obvious that hiring more Border Patrol agents will make an immediate difference. A new hire must learn not only the complexities of immigration law but the Spanish language; typically, this takes about a year. More agents are necessary; but without physical barriers that they can reinforce, they will still have to deal with immigrants sneaking across the border, often in remote and dangerous places. Some kind of wall, whether of steel, wire or other hard-to-penetrate materials, is essential. This will cost money, but it will make a difference.

The difference will be both practical and political. Politically, it will reassure Americans that our leaky boundary is now more secure. Once reassured, we suspect that public opinion will be more open to guest-worker programs, increased numbers of visas for desirable immigrants, and the like. Practically, a physical barrier will save lives and reduce movement without, of course, entirely ending it.

We must not dismiss such notions by worrying that such a barrier will "militarize" the border. No one attempting to cross will be shot, no legal passage will be impeded, and no military personnel will be detaining immigrants.

A serious border fence, reinforced by adequate manpower and surveillance technology, will not block all entries from the south, but it will raise the cost of that trip so high as to shrink substantially the number of people wrongly crossing it. There are, of course, other ways to sneak into this country, but the southern border has been the major point of entry for most of the 12 million illegals already here.

Americans should stop being preoccupied with the Mexican border as a source of terrorists. A few may sneak across, but every person involved in the attack of Sept. 11, 2001 arrived in one of our cities without having crawled across a single border. Terrorists are smart and well-financed enough to get here in many ways; ultimately, good intelligence is what will enable us to stop them.

Second: We will have to get serious about restricting the ability of American employers to hire illegal immigrants. We have done next to nothing about this in the past. The president suggested a tamper-proof ID card to identify immigrants here legally. This may be of some value, but it remains unclear exactly how it will work, especially for illegal aliens already here. Another possibility, now being tested on a pilot basis, is to require every firm to enter the Social Security numbers of all new hires into a national database. When perfected, that system should significantly increase the ability of the government to determine that an employee is using a legitimate and not an invented Social Security number.

Third: We must be prepared to accept a modest program that will put many illegal aliens on the path to citizenship. This is denounced by many as "amnesty." We want to make a modest defense of amnesty, not just for illegal aliens but for the many Americans who have been complicit in their arrival.

Consider who needs amnesty: These include countless business firms that have hired workers without making any serious effort to see if they were here illegally. It includes the Border Patrol that for many decades failed to stem the tide, in part because it was seriously understaffed, but also because many agents, and many more Americans outside the agency, felt sympathy for people trying to better their lives by coming here. It includes countless cities that have instructed their police departments not to question people they arrest to see if they are here illegally and not to turn over such persons to immigration authorities. One of us lives in a southern California city where illegal aliens have been gathering on street corners looking (almost always peacefully) for work for over 30 years. Law enforcement rarely bothers them. We have run a failed immigration control system. Lots of people, and not just aliens, need forgiveness if we are to restore order.

Moreover we cannot find, arrest and deport all, or even many, illegal immigrants. It would take a massive increase in law-enforcement personnel and the hiring of thousands of buses to take people back across the southern border. And what would we do with the children born in America to illegal immigrants? Millions of them, by being born here, are citizens of the United States. Should we deport these young citizens? That is absurd. Perhaps, then, we should deport just their parents, leaving the children behind as orphans. That is ridiculous.

People who are worried about amnesty should conduct this mental experiment: Suppose that the Internal Revenue Service had for decades not audited tax claims, that many employers had not filed W-2 or 1099 forms for their workers, and that police in many places had refused to punish tax-law violators. Suppose 12 million Americans had benefited from this state of affairs. We would not have enough police to arrest all of the offenders or the prisons in which to confine them. Faced with this problem, we suspect that the government would fix the broken system and then declare . . . an amnesty.

If we are to put some aliens on the path to citizenship, we must do so in ways that take into account the deep fears Americans have about the behavior as well as the legality of these newcomers. Illegal aliens are thought, sometimes rightly, to be putting enormous strains on others by burdening our schools, committing crimes, filling our prisons and populating gangs. Most do not do these things, of course, but enough do so that we must make the road to citizenship a demanding one.

Obviously, we should examine immigrants on their knowledge of American history, our system of government and our laws. But we should do much more. We need to determine if immigrants have conducted themselves like good neighbors and citizens. They should be free of any serious crime, not be members of a criminal gang, and otherwise demonstrate their willingness to accept the responsibilities of membership in this political community. They should pay fees to help defray the costs they have imposed on public services. Perhaps we should also look for evidence that they have helped others and worked in community-serving causes.

Learning English is essential. We should be prepared to put our money where our mouths are and mount a serious national program to teach newcomers English. Directing them to heartwarming but inadequately supported ESL programs will no longer do. The federal government should take the lead by setting expectations (something President Bush began by insisting that the national anthem be sung in English). But private foundations could play a critical role by developing pedagogically and technologically sophisticated language-teaching materials. A good place to begin would be inexpensive CDs and DVDs that would allow immigrant parents to practice their English after the kids have been put to bed and while cleaning up the kitchen.

The alternative to an ordered system of earning legal status is to punish 12 million illegal immigrants for actions in which many native-born Americans are clearly complicit. We hope that Congress will acknowledge this reality as well as the insight that the integration of immigrants -- whether legal or illegal -- requires that we all embrace more seriously the responsibilities of citizenship.

Mr. Wilson, a professor at Pepperdine University, is the author of "The Moral Sense" (Free Press, 1993). Mr. Skerry, a professor at Boston College, is the author of "Mexican Americans: The Ambivalent Minority" (Harvard, 1995).