Thursday, April 13, 2006 | The much-vaunted immigration bill of 2006 collapsed last week, and – street protests or not – good riddance. With any luck, the Senate won’t bring it up again when it meets after Easter, and the next time around Congress will address the root causes of our illegal immigration problem instead of just playing to the crowds.

A century from now, or maybe a lot sooner, people are going to look back at our immigration struggles of the past two decades with amazement. How is it possible, they will ask, that in three major laws passed during the 20 years between 1986 and 1996, and another almost passed in 2006, Congress did nothing but make the problem worse?

By that time, California’s population will be 60 million or so (remember that it was only 15 million a half century ago) the entire California coastline will look like Los Angeles and the nation’s prison population will rival that of the Soviet gulags.

Why didn’t democracy work a century ago, our descendants will ask? When Americans said loudly and clearly in poll after poll that they wanted immigration contained and controlled, why did Congress continue its tarradiddling ways, with its more outrageous hypocrites – those running for president – pretending to support real legislation while all the time being in the pockets of the pro-immigration lobbies?

The bill the Senate was so close to passing last week was nearly a mirror image of the dreadful law of 1986, IRCA, the law that amnestied 5 million illegal immigrants and opened the door to the 12 million more that would have benefited this time. Under that Senate bill, given the principle of proportionality, we could have expected 20 million more illegal immigrants to have been amnestied over the next 20 years, with 40 percent of them, as under IRCA, residents of California.

Why, our descendants will ask, did none of the four bills – 1986, 1990, 1996 and 2006 – contain the single provision that would actually have stopped illegal immigration in its tracks: a secure Social Security identity card that allowed employers to determine if workers were legal residents? Lacking such a card, illegal workers would not be hired, and the jobs magnet would be turned off.

We need to be clear about something: The 12 million or so illegal immigrants presently here are not leaving, and nothing in the Senate’s bills would have made them leave. Short of an unthinkable ethnic cleansing, those 12 million will stay and become nationals like the rest of us. This year’s legislation, like that of 1986, was right to seek ways to legalize them. There is no other solution.

But IRCA’s great flaw, repeated in the Senate’s 2006 bills, was to do nothing to impede future flows of illegal immigrants. This year’s bills were worse because they failed to learn from the mistakes of 1986. The ’86 bill included provisions on employer sanctions that were meant to staunch the future flow of illegal immigrants, but what we didn’t know in ’86 was that IRCA would create a new industry of illegal documentation, which defeated the employer sanctions provisions: We can ask employers to check employees IDs, we cannot ask them to be experts on forgery.

We know now that the only way to stop future illegal immigration is to come up with forgery-proof IDs. Every independent commission set up to study immigration for a generation has come to the same conclusion: establish a computer-registry system that can verify legal job status. The would-be employee – and that means all of us – presents a secure Social Security ID; the employer checks it on a secure Social Security website to make sure it is not lost, stolen or forged, and if all is kosher, makes the hire. Simple.

Opponents of such a system – and they know it is the only way to defeat illegal immigration – object that such a national ID is not the American way. They used to object that IDs were not the Anglo-Saxon way (as distinguished from continental Europe), but since Britain is moving to a national ID, they are back to claiming it is un-American. It is a theoretical objection that masks their real objection: Opponents to a national ID want to encourage illegal immigration because they benefit from it.

The pro-immigration lobbies – mostly manufacturers, retailers, growers and lawyers -give vastly more money to Congress than the diffuse groups of opponents that understand how uncontrolled populations can outstrip natural resources, especially in a state as precariously balanced between population and resources as California. The lobbies like the idea of using immigrants to hold down wages and increase profits.

Ted Kennedy and John McCain, the two sponsors of the worst of the Senate’s failed bills, have been in the Senate through all four of the debates – 1986 through 2006 – and deserve high marks in hypocrisy. They know their bill would have done nothing to staunch the flow of illegal workers into this country.

But let’s not forget those on the other side of the debate, led by San Diego’s own Rep. Duncan Hunter, whose xenophobic nativism makes the hypocrites look positively virtuous. Hunter, good pal and mentor of our other local nativist, former Rep. Randy Cunningham, would keep illegal immigrants out by building a triple-fence along the Mexican border all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, manning it with guard towers, barbed wire and dogs like the East Germans used to do.

Now I ask you: wouldn’t an ID card be easier, cheaper and more effective? And there’s another problem with Hunter’s fence: The IRS says half the illegal immigrants entered legally. How would Hunter’s fence stop them?

A decade ago, former California Sen.-Gov. Pete Wilson thought the solution to the problem was to throw the children of illegal immigrants out of school and deny them and their families’ medical care. California’s infamous Proposition 187, backed by Wilson and passed by voters would have done that if not thrown out by the courts. I opposed Proposition 187 because it was both inhumane and wrong-headed. Illegal immigrants don’t come to California for schools and food stamps. They come to work. Deny them work and they won’t come and won’t stay.

Why didn’t they see that a century ago, our descendants will ask? Why didn’t they see that the magnet for all immigration is to work and to prosper, and that if you want to halt illegal immigration and control legal immigration what you have to do is set the standards for legal employment? It’s so simple.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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