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We Can't Kick Off Immigration Reform With Amnesty

Tuesday night we learned about how the Republican candidates would handle a big part of the Oval Office portfolio. That's because they took a good 90 minutes talking mostly about one thing: foreign policy and national security. Along the way, they addressed on of the toughest questions facing policymakers: What to do about our deeply flawed immigration system and broken borders.

No sound-bite can cover how to battle transnational criminal cartels, how to respond to Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iranian intelligence networks threading their way through Latin America, how to protect our sovereignty and the sanctity of citizenship or how to deal with illegal immigration.

Securing our southern border starts south of the border. We must partner with Mexico to help it meet its security, economic and civil society challenges. For the first time in a long time, there are leaders in Mexico who are tired of hearing the cartels’ ultimatum “plato o plomo”—silver or lead (meaning take a bribe and step aside, or we will kill you and your family). One Mexican military officer, when was asked his “vision” for Mexico, said it was to see the country be like it was 10 years ago. Back then, he explained, the cartels would flee when the army showed up. Now, they fight back. That officer and many others in Mexico want their country back.

Meanwhile, we can and must do more stateside to secure the border. But we need sensible security measures, with D.C., the states and border communities all pulling in the same direction. That’s not likely to happen if President Obama accepts across-the-board budget cuts. Slashed security budgets will translate directly to weakened border operations: fewer primary inspection lanes at border crossings; fewer dog teams on the line sniffing out smuggled drugs, cash, guns and aliens; fewer liaison teams coordinating operations, etc. No matter how the cuts come down, border security will suffer.

In addition to doing better operationally, we need to do a better job on the policy front. That includes effective, adequate temporary worker programs that get employers the employees when they need, when they need them to help grow the economy and create more jobs. It means opening the door to high-skilled immigration. It also means enforcing the immigration and workplace laws.

Finally, immigration reform cannot lead with amnesty. Americans will have to demonstrate wisdom and compassion in crafting strategies to deal with those are residing unlawfully in the United States now, but the campaign cannot start by granting a widespread amnesty. That would reward those who have broken our laws and undermine confidence in all other efforts to fix the problem. Amnesties just encourage more illegal entry and unlawful presence.

We must to have the patience to take all the other steps first—to fix the system. Then we can turn to amnesty. But starting with amnesty is a non-starter.

At last night’s extended debate, the candidates collectively articulated all the components of a sound plan. If whoever emerges as the GOP nominee can string them all together into a coherent plan, the American people will have a clear alternative to the failed policies we have tried since September 11, 2001.

James Jay Carafano is director of The Heritage Foundation’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.

James Jay Carafano is vice president of foreign and defense policy studies  The Heritage Foundation. Follow him on Twitter @JJCarafano.