Learning from our mistakes

By Margaret D. Stock

Members of Congress are now focusing on the long-neglected problem of fixing our country's failed immigration laws. Hearings have already been held on the issue and several bills have been introduced, the Senate majority leader has promised to take it up early next year, and the president has reiterated his support for reform.

Those of us in the national security community are asking: Will they really get it done? Will they get it right? Or, will some try to derail the process by ignoring forward-looking solutions in favor of divisive wedge issues that generate easy political gains while taking America in the wrong direction?

During the past decade, we tripled the number of agents on the border, quintupled their budget, toughened our enforcement strategies, and heavily fortified urban entry points. Yet, during the same time period, we saw record levels of illegal immigration, porous borders, a cottage industry created for smugglers and document forgers, and tragic deaths in our deserts. Our failed policies have only made the criminal networks stronger.

Furthermore, attempts to "tighten security" in the wake of 911 have proved futile. Tighter caps on worker visas have driven more people underground, making it even tougher for us to identify who is here. Harsher restrictions on immigrants who wish to obtain driver's licenses eliminated one of the few tools we had to identify the 9/11 bombers (Mohammed Atta was identified through his driver's license and was the key to identifying others involved in 9/11). The hastily enacted and now-disbanded special registration program arrested law-abiding Muslims and destroyed faith and trust in our government, while failing to net a single known terrorist. We must learn from our mistakes, not repeat them.


National security is most effectively enhanced by improving the mechanisms for identifying actual terrorists, not by implementing harsher immigration laws or blindly treating all foreigners as potential threats. Policies and practices that fail to properly distinguish between terrorists, and legitimate foreign travelers, guest workers and hard-working and harmless immigrants are ineffective security tools that waste limited resources, damage the U.S. economy, and foster a false sense of security. We cannot be secure unless we know who is already here and who is trying to come here.

What we need is comprehensive, bipartisan immigration reform. Continuing to do nothing but enforce our current laws will lead to more dysfunction and less enforcement. Key to such reform is dealing smartly with the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the U.S. Most are relatives of U.S. citizens and lawful residents or workers holding jobs that Americans do not want. People already here who are no threat to our security, but who work hard, pay taxes, and are learning English, should be allowed to earn permanent residence. They are not the problem, but rather a symptom of our broken immigration system. Including them in reform would tell our government who is residing in our country.

Likewise, a "break-the-mold" worker program would significantly diminish illegal immigration by creating a legal avenue for people to enter the U.S., something that barely exists today. Our immigration laws supply just 5,000 annual permanent visas and 66,000 temporary visas for workers, versus an annual demand for 500,000 full-time, low-skilled "essential" workers.

Similarly, reducing the decade-long backlog in family-based immigration would reunite families faster and, in recognizing that blood is thicker than borders, make it unlikely that people would cross the border illegally in order to be reunited with their loved ones.

Margaret D. Stock is an associate professor in the Department of Law at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., where she teaches national security law.

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