Froma Harrop | To Fix Immigration, Look North

Ripped from the news: Haitians are illegally crossing into Vermont from Canada, looking for work.

Why didn’t the Haitians stay in Canada, where the social safety net is far cushier? Because, as the head of a Haitian radio station in Montreal told The New York Times, “they saw that they had no chance to become Canadian permanent residents.” And, he added, “people thought that the United States were going to receive all the Haitians.”

What do we take home from this? First off, porous borders are not the biggest reason that illegal immigration has become such a huge problem in the United States. Note that while President Obama is sending up to 1,200 National Guard troops to secure the border with Mexico, there are no troops, rivers or even fences along most of the U.S.-Canadian border. Some country roads mark the boundary with a simple stone.

True, illegal aliens can walk into the United States from Mexico. The logistics are easier in the American Southwest. But there are plenty of illegal workers in Washington state, Michigan and Maine — and little stopping them from going on to Canada.

Our northern neighbor has a large immigration program but little illegal immigration, because Ottawa won’t tolerate it. No country with generous entitlements can afford a growing population of low-income workers.

Canada tweaks its immigration program to meet economic needs. It favors entrants with highly desirable skills. And when the economy recently turned sour, it stopped renewing many temporary work permits.

Should America do as Canada does? Should it stringently enforce its ban on hiring illegal workers? Yes. And should it stop fretting over what happens to undocumented people already in the country? Yes, but not yet.

What separates the United States from Canada on illegal immigration is a consistent message. America’s landmark 1986 immigration reform law banned the hiring of illegal workers while granting amnesty to several million already here. But it was purposely rendered toothless at the last minute, when saboteurs yanked out a provision requiring a secure check of job applicants’ identities.

Talk about messages. Suppose you’re an impoverished Mexican. You know that the United States has offered several amnesties to illegal workers, and in any case, hasn’t much enforced the law. You heard President George W. Bush announce that he was going to “match any willing worker with any willing employer.” And you know that the conservative Wall Street Journal has called for open borders, while the liberal New York Times runs editorials on immigration that refuse to distinguish between legal and illegal.

What would you do? You would come to the United States, papers be damned.

We’ve had several decades of a two-faced immigration policy during which millions have come to this country illegally, taken jobs, started families and become part of the American scene. They are mostly good people who have been integrated into our economy and communities. There must be a last amnesty to cover them.

And it will be the last one if two things happen: One, we pass immigration reform that requires every new hire to present counterfeit-proof ID. Two, the public demands that their government go after law-breaking employers.

After virtually no enforcement in the Bush years, the Obama administration has begun to cite and fine employers who break the law. This is needed to move public opinion toward an immigration package that includes legalizing many already here. Sending troops to the border may also boost confidence.

But as Canada shows us, it’s not the ease of crossing the border that encourages illegal immigration, but the ease of getting a job once in. The United States needs to get its act together and its message straight on immigration.