Linda Chavez
As the Senate continues to grapple with immigration reform, it's time to clear the air of some broad misconceptions in the current debate. Since writing about this topic over the last few weeks, my inbox has been flooded with e-mails raising questions.

Some critics seem especially rankled by my arguments that many illegal aliens are "otherwise law-abiding" members of their communities. Most detractors point out that illegal aliens can't pay taxes since they aren't entitled to work. But that's only half right. Confusion and ignorance on the immigration issue abound, so, here are a few facts worth considering.

First, illegal aliens are not currently criminals. They have committed a misdemeanor civil offense under current law by entering or remaining in the United States once their visas expire, but the House-passed immigration bill would automatically make these offenses criminal felonies.

Second, illegal aliens, by definition, broke the law to enter the country, but the way they got here doesn't differ all that much from the way most immigrants came in previous eras. Until the success of the immigration restriction movement in the 1920s, people who wanted to immigrate simply showed up at U.S. ports, or in the case of Mexicans and Canadians, just walked across the border.

There were laws in place governing naturalization, which varied over time from requiring that an immigrant live here as little as two years to as long as 14 years before being eligible for citizenship. Indeed, laws requiring registration of immigrants were set up to ensure that immigrants met the naturalization residency requirements.

Unless they were from Asia (Chinese and, later, other Asian immigrants were barred or severely limited from immigrating between 1862 and 1952), immigrants had merely to show themselves to be free of "loathsome or contagious diseases"; demonstrate that they were not likely to become dependent on public assistance (still required to gain admission today); attest that they were not polygamists, convicts or prostitutes; and, later, pay a small fee. These requirements were met after the immigrants were already on U.S. soil -- in fact, the huge numbers of people immigrating in the early 20th century led to the creation of Ellis Island off Manhattan to process the entrants.

Today's legal immigrants face a lengthy, sometimes decades-long, process, must have close relatives already living in the U.S. to stand any realistic chance of being admitted, or must possess unusual skills much in demand and have an employer ready to hire them.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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