In his State of the Union Address, President Bush told America, "We need to resolve the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country without animosity and without amnesty." I'm all for that, so here's my idea: Let those who choose to come to America illegally or overstay their visas remain illegal, but let their minor children, whether born in America or not, become citizens.
No matter what Bush and Senate members wanted to call it, they were pushing for amnesty last year. And the biggest problem with amnesty is the magnet effect.
There are an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States today. A law that puts them on a path to citizenship would send a message to would-be immigrants across the globe that they can sneak into this country, break our laws and be rewarded.
Also, amnesty would have a multiplier effect. New legal residents can petition to allow a spouse or minor child into America. When they become citizens, they can bring in even more family members.
There is an ethical problem that comes in rewarding illegal behavior. First, people come or stay illegally in America. Next, they get fraudulent documents to work outside the law. You can't tell me that families can break those rules and still respect other federal and state laws.
Amnesty advocates argue that it is cruel to force families living in America to live outside the law. Is it? At some juncture in their lives, today's illegal immigrants decided that living and working illegally was acceptable.
They made their bed.
Having said that, I am aware that I am on the losing side of history. The modern world has seen a global Diaspora, with poor around the world moving from south to north, east to west and west to east. There is only so much governments can do to stop people hungry for opportunity and a safe and stable place to stake their futures -- and it is that spirit that has made America great.
Both political parties are doing the math. They see millions of new voters -- the children of immigrants and aliens who find paths to citizenship -- and they do not want to alienate this very woo-able voting bloc.
Politicians also are listening to employers -- men and women who write campaign checks and warn that they need immigrant labor to stay in business.
As far as many members of Congress are concerned, it is their job to pass guest-worker or visa programs to keep local businesses from closing up shop.
This much is clear: With a Democratic-led Congress and Bush in the White House, Washington will expand the number of legal immigrants in America.
Consider my proposal: Illegal immigrants remain, living in the shadows as they have chosen to do. If they don't break criminal laws, chances are they will stay here for as long as they are able or care to.
The federal government continues to crack down on employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. This should make it harder for undocumented workers to find jobs. The feds also step up the deportation of illegal aliens with criminal records.
Washington increases guest-worker programs and visas, but without laying a path to citizenship that undermines the credibility of immigration law.
But, because no 12-year-old decides to immigrate here illegally, Washington could pass a law to grant citizenship to the illegal minors when they reach age 18. (Children born in America to illegal immigrants already become citizens.)
I've opposed moves to allow illegal immigrant students to attend state colleges at the cheaper in-state tuition rate -- because it rewards parents' illegal decisions -- but in the post-2006 election environment, this is a fit area for compromise.
Allow me to get personal for a minute. Last May, I received hundreds of e-mails from readers who were furious at the May 1 National Day Without Immigrants Great American Boycott demonstrations. I shared their anger that many thousands believed they had a right to break the law and still be rewarded with citizenship. As for the Mexican flags waved at similar demonstrations -- let's just say there was no better way to turn off American voters.
When I speak to local groups, I frequently hear from people who are furious about the lack of enforcement of immigration law. Some know people who have been told that they have to learn Spanish to keep their jobs.
Others are angry when they've been forced to compete in the marketplace with businesses that hire illegal workers. Many resent having to pay higher taxes because their state and local governments end up footing the bill for health care and schooling for the children of illegal immigrants.
Most of the people I hear from are not racists. But there are always a few people who use a certain tone of voice as they carp about "the Mexicans." And they don't seem to notice the workers in white shirts and black pants clearing away their plates in the back of the room. I hate those moments.
Why? Because for all the ways that folks like me are right, there are also millions of good people who want little more than to work hard and raise a family. They should pay a price for deciding that abiding by American immigration laws was a luxury they could not afford.
But their children are Americans.
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