Immigration misunderstood

Posted: Apr 06, 2006 12:05 AM

I have often written about immigration and never fail to be misunderstood. Even the simplest statements of fact invite angry blogs and e-mails from people who claim to believe the only thing that matters is physically stopping those who arrive by crossing one of our borders on foot. Actually, most illegal immigrants arrive legally by car or plane, sometimes as tourists or students, or as alien crewmen who jump ship, or as travelers ostensibly in transit.

I never said we should not secure our borders. But border guards and immigration officers get no respect. The United States convicted 21,821 of immigration violations in 2003, and formally deported 202,842 in 2004. If anyone really hopes to deport 12 million, there aren't enough buses.

President Bush insults our intelligence when he says illegal immigrants are needed to fill jobs that legal residents won't do. There is no job that can't be filled at a price. If that price is too high, consumers will simply take on more do-it-yourself projects -- mowing their own lawns, cleaning their own homes, growing their own vegetables, cooking their own meals and taking care of their own children or elderly parents. We would not pay any more for fruit and vegetables because the price is set on world markets -- we'd just import more fruit and vegetables from Mexico.

I see no reason why Congress should not tackle the issue of beefing-up border security first, rather than trying to bundle that costly chore with the more difficult issue of coping civilly with illegal immigrants who have been our neighbors for years.

What I most object to is self-righteous pontificating by people who have no idea how our immigration laws work, or why they don't. I keep hearing radio talksters and cable newsters being outraged about how unfair it is for illegal aliens to "jump to the head of the line." They should wait their turn, too, just as legal immigrants do. But there is no such line. Waiting lines are for relatives, not workers.

Eligibility for legal immigration is primarily based on whether or not one has relatives in the United States (or can recruit a fiancee) and secondarily on whether or not one comes from a brutal dictatorship (as a refugee or asylum-seeker) or was lucky enough to be one of the 55,000 out of 6.2 million applicants to win the diversity lottery.

It is almost impossible for foreigners without close relatives here to work here if they are not refugees or asylum-seekers, unless they marry a U.S. citizen or win the diversity lottery. The English, Irish, Scots and Canadians needn't bother with the lottery -- their language is insufficiently diverse. Immigration reform will never be reform until such capricious criteria are replaced by employability, English language testing by U.S. schools and serious immigration fees (to separate sincere applicants from the frivolous).

The United States has always issued temporary work permits, usually for one to three years. They are temporary because they require a fingerprint and immigration cops know whom to look for. Labeling such permits as "guest workers" is a semantic blunder. The important point is that work has a ridiculously low priority in U.S. immigration law. We admit a million legal immigrants each year, and half that many illegally, yet the number of employment-related visas is just 86,000.

Forget the silly idea that there are only so many jobs to go around. We are aging fast, and the country will soon run short of younger workers who can take a load off our creaking backs.

Those who fantasize that patient foreigners can somehow acquire super-scarce work permits by waiting in line are deluded. They also misuse the word "amnesty" to mean clemency or pardon. The failure to prosecute (imprison?) all those who violated the immigration laws for two decades is considered no different from granting them all green cards. Nonsense. It is entirely different.

Section 245(i) of the Immigration Act already allows illegal aliens to apply for green cards (permanent residency) if they fill out Form I-485 and pay a penalty of $1,000. Or they can give that money to a lawyer and apply for asylum with no fee, which buys a lot of time and keeps immigration lawyers well fed.

Very few illegals actually get green cards or asylum, of course. But there is currently no in-between status for them -- they can apply for permanent residency or asylum, but not for temporary work visas. That means they must hide. And it is the fact that we compel them to hide -- that we don't know who they are or where they are -- that poses a security risk.

Those who talk tough about enforcing our immigration laws need to first understand just how ridiculous those laws really are. Then they need to explain just how they would go about enforcing those ridiculous laws and why tough enforcement would not simply increase the incentive to hide.

The House wants to declare illegal immigration a felony. Did the House actually expect law enforcement to attempt arresting an estimated 5.4 million men and 3.9 million women and sending them to federal prisons? What would we do with their 1.8 million kids?

Many illegal immigrants can hardly imagine a more luxurious life than a federal prison. If Congress invited Central America's poorest young men to a prepaid vacation at Club Fed, they'd gladly volunteer by the millions.

Should we slap big fines on businesses caught hiring illegal immigrants? Do we really want a lot of young Latinos wandering the street without work? Many work in the cash economy as migrant workers at small farms, casual day laborers for marginal construction companies, maids, nannies, lawn maintenance workers and the like. They are employed by households or very small businesses, making the cost of enforcement much higher than any likely benefit.

I am not offering easy solutions -- at least not before someone explains just what the problems are and which ones need to be solved first, second and third. Those who offer easy solutions are fooling you, fooling themselves or both. Whenever Congress is so obviously befuddled as it is on this issue, the safest thing for it to do is absolutely nothing.

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