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Back to Mexico, Jose Cuervo

An immigration overhaul requires a carrot, a stick and plenty of commonsense reforms.

Boy, it sure is nice Congress finally decided to take up this pesky illegal immigration problem. And just think – it only took the influx of an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants and the deaths of thousands of border crossers for lawmakers to spring into action. One can only imagine the sense of urgency on Capitol Hill if immigration laws were also a part of drug policy, gun control or – good heavens – national security.

That lawmakers are talking about overhauling immigration laws during this election year is indeed a refreshing sign of political courage. But answering the most difficult questions – like how to implement a guest worker program, stem the flow of Latino immigrants and document the millions of illegal aliens already within the United States – certainly will take more than a fit of bravery.

However the Senate and House come to agree on new immigration laws, the basic strategy of any reform should be clear: Foremost, new security protections and some kind of guest workers program should be used to deter well-intentioned Latino workers from attempting to cross the border. And as for those illegal aliens already within the United States, a carrot should be offered for them to emerge from the shadows, and a stick should await those immigrants and employers who continue to break federal and state laws.

There’s a humanitarian side to this too. Every year hundreds of thousands of people set out for the United States, and every year many of them don’t make it. Crossing the border without the right papers is unlawful, but it should not be punishable by death. The immigration debate comes on the heels of a year during which southern border crossers died in record numbers – somewhere around 460, depending on how law enforcement officials count body parts.

Hopefully such gruesome figures aren’t lost on legislators. Latino immigrants have proved they will risk arrest, deportation and even death to make it across the border, and they will continue to break the law as long as they have incentive to do so. This means stemming the flow of illegal immigrants does not boil down to making it more dangerous for people to come across the border. There needs to be more risk and far less incentive to even try. Just building a fence will not solve the problem.

Unfortunately, the whole illegal immigration debacle is such a mess that most media reports and eminences on Capitol Hill have played the debate as a problem-solving session. A true victory for immigration reform would include more proactive measures as well.

Take for example, recent news of the Government Accountability Office’s “dirty bomb” test. Last year federal investigators were able to slip enough radioactive material for two dirty bombs past customs officials in Texas and Washington. Radiation detectors went off at the checkpoints, but the unsuspecting officials allowed the investigators through on account of some phony documents.

The Bush administration’s response was a promise to provide new technology to detect forged documents. But that misses a big part of the story. The radiation detectors used on many American borders (such as those in Texas and Washington) are outdated and error-prone. New technology is ready, but the federal government has chosen to take its time. Lawmakers could push a nationwide placement of more accurate radiation-detection technology, but it looks like a final decision will not be made until sometime next year.

Congress also has a chance to be economically proactive by reforming old guest worker programs for all occupations and expanding their rolls. But a special focus should be on adjusting the limit on H1-B – that is, high-tech – visas. In 2004, the Department of Labor approved more than 600,000 applications for high-tech worker visas, but only 65,000 were given out thanks to a cap set by Congress. The result of the restrictions is a lack of qualified candidates for research and development jobs at U.S. firms, which has sent companies like Microsoft, Google and Dell overseas for talent.

Without a guest worker program or more generous visa policies, funds for government programs (particularly Medicare) and human resources for businesses are sure to be stretched thin as the baby boomers continue to retire. And without the ability to replace aging employees, companies will fall behind foreign competitors or send more high paying, high value-added jobs overseas. Obviously, it would be better to avoid the scenario altogether.

So as the Senate stews over its options this week, we the people should hope lawmakers’ bout of political courage keeps up. With any luck, Senators will know better than to emerge from their holes in Washington with a thin, trouble-shooting immigration reform bill and declare victory. And if they do, voters should be ready to dispense the punishment this November at the ballot box.

Darren Bernard welcomes comments at [email protected].

SOURCES: immigration border-deaths_x.htm immigration guestworkersatcoreofimmigrationdispute;_ylt=AhQSa9Uqbz1O9FTBTyj4VapQuk0A;_ylu= X3oDMTBiMW04NW9mBHNlYwMlJVRPUCUl ei=5065&en=4e8dad2fa2193cfb&ex=1144213200&partner=MYWAY&pagewanted=print 11-08-dirty-bomb-detection_x.htm

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