Immigration Reform Shouldn’t Ignore Enforcement

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President Joe Biden’s early efforts on immigration have focused on quickly mending the damage done by his predecessor. Quite right. President Trump was especially active, and especially foolish, on immigration, so there’s plenty to undo. But Biden is also looking farther ahead, and he’s proposed a comprehensive immigration reform that’s meant to resolve the issue for the foreseeable future. This part of his thinking is harder to endorse.

Trump issued a blizzard of executive orders on immigration, most of them ill-conceived. Courts rejected many as illegal. Biden’s early orders on the issue are mostly an effort to pick up the pieces. He’s rescinded the travel ban imposed on some Muslim-majority countries, stopped work on Trump’s wall along the southern border, moved to restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that Trump tried to hobble, and withdrawn the “zero tolerance” instruction on border enforcement that led to thousands of family separations.

One of these first Biden initiatives encountered its own legal setback — a federal court, calling for a clearer explanation, put a hold on an order to pause most deportations (an attempt to reverse Trump’s efforts to accelerate removals). Nonetheless, Biden is to be applauded for moving quickly to make repairs.

Long-term immigration reform is a different matter. The challenge here is to strike a difficult balance — one that resolves the status of the millions of people living in the country illegally, builds a system to promote the additional immigration the country needs, and ensures that future illegal immigration is kept under control. Biden’s proposal rightly provides an eight-year pathway to citizenship for most of the 11 million people thought to be living in the U.S. without legal status, but it lacks an effective plan to strengthen immigration enforcement alongside. Critics who deride the plan as “amnesty first, enforcement never” have a point. As it stands, the proposal risks aggravating the problem of illegal immigration. Its prospects of becoming law look minimal.

Biden and his team need to start over. Since the last big immigration reform, the two parties have moved farther apart on the issue. Nonetheless, a plan that combined amnesty with better enforcement is capable of commanding bipartisan support.

The best way to strengthen immigration-law enforcement is to require employers to vouch for the legal status of their hires — something that many employers already do voluntarily. The federal government maintains an E-Verify service that lets them check job applicants’ legal status. If the checks fail, the system allows for appeals and redress. In most cases, knowing that the information will be verified is enough to encourage compliance. Some employers — such as federal contractors — are required to use the system. Most aren’t. A lot of Democrats are open to the idea of obligatory E-Verify as part of comprehensive immigration reform.

Biden should also pledge to speed the completion of an entry-exit tracking system that Congress mandated all of 25 years ago. In recent years, visa “overstays” have greatly outnumbered unauthorized border crossers — one more reason why Trump’s wall made little sense. No nation can ensure its border security unless it can reliably track the coming and going of foreign visitors.

Adding these proposals to the Biden plan would refute the charge of “enforcement never.” And they’d stand a good chance of bringing moderate Republicans to support comprehensive reform.

Many other issues would still need to be resolved. These include the extent to which needed skills, on the one hand, and family connections, on the other, should be criteria in immigrant applications. What role should temporary work visas play? What about refugees and asylum seekers? How can a notoriously slow and inefficient system be streamlined and modernized? None of that is easy — but a smaller, well-balanced, politically feasible bill would be a good start. Biden should take another look at his plan.

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg Opinion editorial board.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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