Without Discipline, Humane Border Policy Fails | Opinion

On his first day as president, Joe Biden is unfurling big ideas for fixing the immigration program. Any smart plan will loosen howls by extreme opinions, be they for shutting the borders tight or opening them wide, so he might as well do the right thing. Rebuilding the system to be more humane would be welcome. But protecting American labor from unfair competition is also essential. That means controlling who enters and how many enter the country.

And so, what does Biden have in mind? Start with his two no-brainers. One is rapidly legalizing the status of the "Dreamers," immigrants brought to this country illegally as children. The other is raising prosecutions for drug traffickers and human smugglers.

His plan to put the estimated 11 million immigrants in the U.S. illegally on a path to citizenship makes sense—but only if paired with a requirement that employers use a database, such as E-Verify, to certify that all new hires have a right to work in the United States. This enforcement piece was part of the unsuccessful 2013 immigration reform bill that most Democrats supported.

Biden's initial plans don't mention this means to reassure Americans that the laws will be respected going forward. The vast majority of immigrants who enter illegally come here for a job. A wall 10 miles high won't stop them, but being unable to secure a job could.

E-Verify is already mandatory for the federal government and federal contractors. And a handful of states require that all or most employers use it. The program is otherwise voluntary, although over 750,000 employers have joined up.

Former President Donald Trump's talk on immigration was nasty but mainly talk. He'd say vile things about foreigners of color but then refuse to take the one step that could have come close to stopping illegal immigration. He would not support E-Verify.

Asked about that on Fox News, Trump said, "E-Verify is so tough that in some cases, like farmers, they're not—they're not equipped for E-Verify." Like farmers don't have laptops.

The dirty secret was that Trump and other Republicans were happy to harass undocumented immigrants, but they would not prevent businesses from exploiting their labor. Like the Republicans who sunk the 2013 reform bill, they would give sermons on the evils of rewarding lawbreakers while keeping the easily breakable laws in place.

Some opponents of curbing illegal immigration—be they on the cheap-labor right or the diversity left—complain that the E-Verify system has suffered from technical glitches. It's been much strengthened in recent years, and any future problems can be addressed.

U.S.-Mexico Border Wall
A general view of the U.S. border fence, covered in concertina wire, separating the U.S. and Mexico, at the outskirts of Nogales, Arizona, on February 9, 2019. ARIANA DREHSLER/AFP via Getty Images

Biden faces a prospect he shouldn't want: a surge of Central Americans rushing the border in the expectation he'll make it easier for them. Setting the cutoff date for legalization at this past Jan. 1 would, some presume, discourage new caravans. The reality, however, is that the masses come for jobs, not the right to vote for county commissioner.

Biden's choice of Alejandro Mayorkas to run the Department of Homeland Security is cause for optimism. An immigrant from Cuba, Mayorkas is an ex-prosecutor whom former heads of DHS, Republicans and Democrats alike, praise as uniquely qualified to combine a humane approach with serious enforcement.

Biden must apply muscle as well as heart at the border or his best plans will fall apart. It might seem cruel to stop desperate migrants—most of them fine people—from entering the U.S. without papers. But either you establish law and order at the border or your immigration program loses public support and callous populists like Trump take over.

Canada and Australia run large immigration programs that combine strict enforcement with generosity. We can, too.

Froma Harrop is an award-winning journalist, author and syndicated columnist.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.