Illegal immigration has been on a lot of people’s minds lately. Recently this issue resurged with the passage of a new law in Arizona designed to give local and state law enforcement more tools to combat illegal immigration. Some on the right sound almost xenophobic in their opposition to immigration. On the other hand, some on the left seem to want totally open borders and no enforcement of immigration law.
Regardless of the ultimate fate of the Arizona law, the federal government does need to step up and enact immigration reform. If the current system were working, Arizona would not have felt the need to enact legislation to do what is the federal government’s role. In spite of the media firestorm, the law has strong support among Arizona’s voters .
Most of us would agree that even in our current recession the United States remains an attractive alternative to many other countries. Who among us can blame immigrants for wanting to better the lives of their families by coming to the United States? The economic opportunities and freedom found in the US are unparalleled anywhere else on earth. The truth is that most immigrants, legal and illegal, are decent people who only want to make life better for their families.
I have had personal experience with illegal immigrants as an Athens, Georgia insurance agent. We routinely sold auto policies to men with Mexican driver’s licenses since we were one of the only agencies in town that represented a company who would insure a driver with a foreign license. The men often worked in the chicken processing plants around Athens and would usually pay cash for a six-month policy. Several months later, when they had earned enough money, they would sell the car to another immigrant and return to Mexico.
The fact is that the current situation is our own fault. Yes, it is illegal to sneak into the country, but by ignoring the problem, we have given tacit approval to the practice. Illegal immigration is similar to speeding. Driving too fast is illegal, but since it isn’t taken seriously, it is a frequently broken law. If you get caught, expect only a slap on the wrist. And so many people are doing it that the chance of getting caught is miniscule.
The first step to reaching a common sense solution would be to eliminate the extremes. First, we must acknowledge that we are not going to stop all immigration, illegal or otherwise. Immigrants bring a lot of new talent and ideas to the US and have throughout our history. We are all either immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Even American Indians migrated here from Asia in prehistoric times. We should also acknowledge that we are not going to round up and deport all illegal aliens. The public would not stand for splitting up families and placing otherwise innocent people into internment camps to await deportation. Nor should they.
On the other end of the spectrum, we are also not going to leave the border undefended and ignore the potential threat to national security of having millions of unknown people within our borders. Additionally, public opinion dictates that the US can no longer ignore with a nod and wink the fact that employers are skirting tax and employment law by hiring and paying illegal aliens under the table.
The first step in any immigration fix must be to secure the border. This is a national security imperative. The 9/11 attacks are almost a decade behind us yet it is still commonplace to have people cross into the US illegally. This is inexcusable. It would be absurdly easy for terrorists to enter Mexico or another Latin American country legally and then use the services of a “coyote,” human trafficker, to cross into the US illegally. If people and drugs can be smuggled into the US, so can weapons and terrorists.
Securing the border should also done to protect the immigrants themselves. The illegal journey across the southern border into the US is fraught with danger . Many illegal immigrants die each year in the attempt. Some starve or die of thirst in the harsh climate of the southwestern desert. Others fall victim to the very coyotes to which they had paid an exorbitant fee to guide them into the US. Coyotes routinely rob or murder their charges. Sometimes the immigrants are held captive until their families pay additional money to the coyotes in exchange for their release. In other cases, the illegal immigrants enter the US to life of virtual slavery working for unscrupulous employers or illegal businesses.
The process of securing the border was begun by President Bush who dramatically increased the number of Customs and Border Protection agents . President Bush also began construction of a fence along the US border with Mexico and stepped up enforcement of laws banning the employment of illegal aliens.
The second step, which should be taken after the border is mostly secure, is to deal with the issue of those immigrants who are already here illegally. To deport these people would cause a host of problems. First and most obvious is the expense and cost of locating, detaining and deporting them. This would be hugely expensive and a drain on law enforcement resources that are needed elsewhere. It would also be a public relations nightmare.
Mass deportations would also cause significant difficulties to American businesses. Even though unemployment is at a very high rate currently, many of the unemployed American citizens do not want to work at the jobs that illegals routinely perform. This is especially true since congress has repeatedly extended unemployment benefits. Deportations would stress the many segments of the economy, significantly food production.
A better alternative would be to focus enforcement efforts on illegal aliens who are caught committing other crimes. If immigrants, legal or illegal, are found to be guilty of crimes such as murder, robbery, or drug trafficking then they should be deported.
The only realistic course for illegal immigrants is to bring them into the light. In aviation, a common procedure in a malfunction is to match the switch position to the condition. For example, if an item is switched, but not working, often the procedure will call for turning the switch back off. Similarly, if aliens are already here and working, we should acknowledge that reality by having them register as guest workers, pay a fine, and become legal aliens. This would not make them citizens or grant them amnesty, but it would allow them to stay here and work legally.
When this process is complete, the federal government should begin requiring employers to verify citizenship and immigration status for prospective employees. Employers that continue to knowingly hire illegal aliens should face stiff penalties.
Another following step would be to deal with the problem of “anchor babies.” Current law gives illegal aliens an incentive to come into the country illegally and have a child. When a child is born within the United States, it automatically becomes a citizen and its family is allowed to remain in the country to care for it. Congress should pass legislation that stipulates that citizenship is only granted in cases where aliens are within the US legally. This may require a constitutional amendment, or at the very least a favorable interpretation of current law by the Supreme Court. Sealing the border and enforcing visa time limits would also help to resolve the issue of anchor babies.
We also have to realize that the Mexican border is not the whole immigration problem. A more insidious problem is the number of people who enter the US legally on a temporary visa and then remain past the visa expiration date . The list of people who overstay visas is long and is made up of citizens of countries all around the world, including four of the 9/11 hijackers. Additional oversight and follow up of visa visitors to the US is needed to make sure that people don’t enter the country legally and then remain illegally.
Finally, to complete the reform, the US needs to make it easier for immigrants to come here legally. The US is an immigrant nation and we should continue to welcome the “poor, the tired, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Immigrants built this country and made it prosper. They are also important for its continued success. We should welcome legal immigrants and help them to assimilate into the American melting pot.
There are also a few things that we should definitely not do with respect to the immigration debate. First, we should not allow racist language or beliefs to shape what is essentially a national security debate. Immigration reform is not about keeping out people who look or speak different from us; it is about keeping out people who want to kill us. Second, we should avoid any attempts to extend federal benefits to those who are here illegally and who refuse to come into the open when reform is passed. Likewise, the right to vote, even in local elections, should be reserved for citizens, not mere residents. We should also not push immigrants into separate ghettos or barrios or cater services to a dozen different languages. We should encourage them to assimilate into society and learn English. Speaking English is and always will be a key to success in the US.
Most importantly, the American people have to make sure that the politicians don’t let the politics of competing for Hispanic votes obscure the need for true immigration reform and border security. Hispanics have nothing to fear from legitimate reform and will even benefit from the opportunity to work and live in the US legally.
May 7, 2010