WASHINGTON - In 1986, Congress passed a large immigration bill based on a simple deal: amnesty for settled illegal immigrants in exchange for stricter enforcement of the law to minimize new illegal immigration.

The deal was not honored. The promised future enforcement never materialized. That's because once the amnesty was out of the way, there was no longer any political incentive to push for enforcement, and pressure from special-interest groups pushing for non-enforcement.

This history stands in the way of today's drive for "comprehensive immigration reform."

Although no bill has yet been introduced, the outlines are the same as 25 years ago: legalization - read amnesty - for illegal immigrants in exchange for more promises to enforce the law.

Recent polls show most Americans understand what the president and many congressmen do not: If law-enforcement tools to limit illegal immigration are not in place, we'll end up with millions of new illegal immigrants within a few years.

That's why before even debating whether to give legal status to illegal immigrants, Congress and the administration must take steps to ensure that any future amnesty won't just be a prelude to more amnesties in the future.

First, the borders. For all President Obama's boasts, the border is not secure. Border arrests dropped significantly over the past few years, but that was largely due to the bad economy here and the good economy in Mexico.

The flow has started rising again; in south Texas, arrests are double what they were two years ago. That trend will continue unless we make the needed improvements - now, before any consideration of amnesty.

For example, the Border Patrol is smaller than the New York Police Department, and has to keep an eye on 8,000 miles of borders.

Much of the 650 miles of border fencing is designed only to block cars and presents no obstacle to people on foot. What's more, the Department of Homeland Security acknowledged recently it has no real way of even measuring the security of the border.

But the border with Mexico is only one part of a functioning immigration-security system.

Close to half the illegal population entered on legitimate temporary visas and never left. Congress has mandated the development of a proper check-in/checkout system for foreign visitors.

That sounds good until you realize that Congress did that in 1996, and has repeated the demand five more times since, and the system still isn't complete.

Finally, the most important change needed before talking about amnesty is to turn off the magnet of jobs.

A big step in that direction would be the universal use of an online tool for companies to check whether new hires are legal. Called E-Verify, this free, simple system is still only voluntary.

Those illegal immigrants who might truly warrant an amnesty are going to have to wait until politicians earn back the public's trust on the matter of immigration security.

Enforcement before amnesty

What's Right way to move on immigration reform?

Editor's note

Today's pieces from the McClatchy-Tribune News Service offer two views on moving forward on immigration reform.

Mark Krikorian is executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies.