Steve Chapman
To hear opponents tell it, you don't want to be standing along the U.S. border when an immigration reform bill becomes law. Millions of foreigners who were previously content in their native lands will hear about it, pack a bag and storm across the U.S. border, trampling anyone unlucky enough to be in the way.

The reason, we are told, is a change that Republicans have previously rejected but Democrats and Latino groups see as indispensable: a procedure for illegal immigrants to become legal residents and, eventually, citizens. Critics call it "amnesty" and say it will spur illegal immigration as surely as emptying the jails would generate crime.

Warned one prominent opponent, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Tex., "By granting amnesty, the Senate proposal actually compounds the problem by encouraging more illegal immigration." The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) said it is a recipe for "effectively unlimited future illegal immigration."

This is not an entirely idle fantasy. Back in 1986, President Ronald Reagan signed a bill that eventually allowed three million unauthorized foreigners to become legal -- and in the following years, there was a surge of unapproved arrivals.

Today, the number of people living here without legal permission is estimated at 11 million. CIS Executive Director Mark Krikorian has said the amnesty option would resemble the experience of Bill Murray in the film "Groundhog Day" -- repeating an unwanted experience "over and over again."

The fears, however, are largely groundless. In the first place, the legalization program is not so generous as to lure hordes of Mexicans and other foreigners who have so far resisted the temptation to steal across the border. It would let undocumented migrants stay here on a probationary basis only after they pass a background check and pay a fine as well as back taxes.

So getting legal status won't be cheap or quick. Under the senators' proposal, those migrants yearning for actual U.S. citizenship would have to wait another decade or even two. It's amnesty only for the patient.

Of course, those who came in 1987 or 1993 have already been waiting a very long time for their shot at forgiveness. Is the prospect of another amnesty in 2040 really going to cause a stampede of unauthorized arrivals in 2014 or even 2024?

The alarmists also forget how much the world has changed since 1986. It's a mistake to blame the amnesty for the rise in illegal immigration that followed. It was due far more to a couple of other factors, according to Edward Alden, a researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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