Why does this immigration issue obsess me so? My personal experience from living in New York is that immigrants enhance our neighborhoods, our common life. Like President Bush, I admire those who've braved death and deportation to make a better life for themselves and their families. I also realize that other Americans experience the vast increase in illegal immigration differently. As President Bush pointed out (perhaps for the first time): "Illegal immigration puts pressure on public schools and hospitals. It strains state and local budgets and brings crime to our communities." This is true, even though, as he also said, "The vast majority of illegal immigrants are decent people who work hard, support their families, practice their faith, and lead responsible lives."
I think the answer is the fundamental dishonesty of the debate.
The Senate bill, as it stands, contains a vast unacknowledged increase in legal immigration disguised as a guest worker bill. "Guest workers" under the Senate version would mostly have a right to convert to legal immigrant status after a number of years. Legal immigrants are automatically eligible for citizenship status. Meanwhile, each legal immigrant obtains new rights to bring spouses, children, and even parents to the United States under current law.
A new analysis by the Heritage Foundation suggests that the net result of the Senate provision would be a vast increase in legal immigration, to the tune of 103 million new legal immigrants over the next 20 years. This is in itself hard to fathom. We are good at assimilating immigrants, but surely there is a limit: When one out of three Americans is a legal immigrant, that is likely to swamp our existing institutions and national identity. But of course, legal immigration is not the whole story. Every enclave of legal immigrants becomes an informal haven for relatives and friends who come illegally.
The figure of 103 million new legal immigrants is, the report notes, a mid-level estimate. "If guest-worker immigration grows at the maximum rate permitted by the bill, 20 percent per year, the total number of new immigrants coming to the U.S. over the next 20 years would be 193 million," the report notes. And that is just the legal immigration stream.
"If enacted," the Heritage report concludes, "CIRA (the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2006) would be the most dramatic change in immigration law in 80 years. ... The bill would give amnesty to 10 million illegal immigrants and quintuple the rate of legal immigration into the U.S. ... This would be the highest immigration rate in U.S. history."
The Senate bill, the report notes, "would transform the United States socially, economically and politically. Within two decades, the character of the nation would differ dramatically from what exists today."
People who support this should have the guts to honestly ask the American people to triple or quintuple the rate of legal immigration. The one thing we know about guest worker programs from the European experience is that the workers do not go home. Increasing legal immigration may be a good thing in itself, but it cannot reduce the trend of illegal immigration, unless we decide to simply open the borders to every person who wants to come here.
Here's my even deeper problem: President Bush has had six years to secure the border, and he has not, by his own acknowledgment, done so. Words, in such a circumstance, will not satisfy. Secure the borders first, and then we can debate how much more new immigration is in the American interest.
Actions on this will speak much louder than the president's words.