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Border security is first step
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When I was running for Senate in 2004, illegal immigration was second only to the war on terror on the list of issues folks asked me about on the campaign trail. In the two years I’ve served in the Senate, illegal immigration remains the number one domestic issue my constituents continue to raise when I am home. No matter where I go in Georgia – north, south, east or west – people want to know what Congress is going to do about illegal immigration.

Everyone agrees we have a serious problem. There are as many as 20 million people in the United States illegally today. School systems are stretched; health care systems are strained; local jails are packed. States face the challenge every day on how to deal with a problem the federal government has ignored for too long.

There is a solution to the illegal immigration problem in the United States, and that solution lies in common sense. This is not a chicken-or-egg question about what comes first. Our first step in comprehensive immigration reform, before we address any other issues dealing with illegal immigration, must be to secure our borders.

If you grant legal status to those here illegally without first securing the border, it is only logical that millions more will seek to come here illegally.  That is exactly what happened after 1986, when Congress passed the last immigration reform legislation without first securing the border.

On the other hand, if you secure the borders before granting any legal status to those here illegally, it is only logical that those wanting to come here will come the legal way.  It is equally logical that a secure border will force those already here illegally to cooperate with whatever rules or reforms would be required of them to gain legal status.

Requiring the securing of our borders as a trigger for reforming our immigration laws makes sense.  In fact, it would take about 24 months to implement the border security improvements necessary. That time should be used to implement a secure immigration identification card and verification system, along with a temporary probationary work program, so that both would be ready to go as soon as the border is secure.

Once the borders are secure, those here illegally can apply for a temporary probationary work permit. To qualify, they must clear the terrorist watch list and be free of any felony charge or conviction. They must also demonstrate that they or their head of household is employed. Note that this work permit is temporary and probationary, not a pathway to U.S. citizenship. These individuals are expected to pursue citizenship through the same rules and procedures that exist for any other immigrant.

Once the nation’s borders are secure and those in the country illegally are identified, legal immigration quotas can be raised or lowered annually based on economic demands and the full employment of American citizens.  This is the way our immigration system used to work. This is the way it should work again.

On a recent trip with Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff to the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona, I helped weld a section of the double barrier fence under construction and witnessed firsthand how the new fence, the increase in ground control radar and the increase in border agents are helping to stem the tide of illegal immigration.  

We visited the Yuma Sector (office), which patrols 118 miles of border with Mexico between the Yuma-Pima County line in Arizona and the Imperial Sand Dunes in California. There, the number of people trying to enter the United States illegally has dropped dramatically, from about 118,000 arrests in fiscal year 2006 down to 15,000 arrests in the first five months of this fiscal year. The reason? The construction of double-barrier fencing, the installation of ground control radar and the doubling of border patrol agents from 400 to more than 800.

My visit proved to me without a doubt that a combination of aerial surveillance, ground radar, physical barriers where appropriate and the right kind of border patrol force will dramatically reduce — and ultimately end — illegal immigration

I stand ready to work with any member of Congress on comprehensive immigration reform as long as securing the borders is the foundation and the first step of that reform.

Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Republican senator from Georgia, wrote this commentary for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation.