In the midst of the polarizing debate on immigration, advocates on all sides of the issue can agree on one undeniable proposition: some immigrants benefit the United States and should be welcomed here, while others do real damage to our country and ought to be sent home.
The difficult question is how to sort out the good immigrants from the bad ones, the ones we want from the ones we need to deport.
Consider, for instance, Faisal Shazad, the would-be Times Square bomber, who is obviously the sort of murderous, America-hating intruder who deserves no place in the United States. And then compare him to Wilma Tenobro, the devoted wife of an Army officer and Iraq War veteran, who is precisely the sort of immigrant who helps the country with her presence. The sad fact is, that Mr. Shazad is a legal immigrant and now a naturalized citizen, while Ms. Tenobro, despite the pleas of her active-duty husband on behalf of his wife and their three year old daughter, is an illegal who faces imminent deportation. The contrast of the two cases (both from from the New York area) demonstrates that distinction between useful and harmful immigrants isn’t as simple as the difference between legal and illegal status.
Though most legal immigrants are no doubt law-abiding, America-loving newcomers, some of them are gangsters and goldbricks, welfare cheats and Al Qaeda operatives. After all, Mohammad Atta and the eighteen co-conspirators who slaughtered three thousand Americans on September 11th, all entered the country legally, and the majority of them kept their visas up-to-date to the very moment of their unspeakable crime. Meanwhile, it’s true that many illegal immigrants involve themselves in drug smuggling and identity theft, joining gangs and draining public resources, while many others work hard, join churches, and long for acceptance (and legal status) in a country they love.
According to official estimates, close to half of illegals have close relatives who are citizens –children, husbands or wives, brothers or sisters. The situation of Wilma Tenobro, whose husband, Lt. Kenneth Tenobro, is stationed at Ft. Dix, New Jersey and awaits a second deployment to the Middle East, is hardly a singular anomaly. The New York Times cites Department of Homeland Security officials who “say that many thousands of people in the military have spouses or close relatives who are illegal immigrants. Many of these service members have fought to gain legal status for their family members – only to hit a legal dead end.” The Tenobros have invested more than $7,000 in legal fees so far to no avail.
Despite propaganda suggesting that all illegals skulk across the border in open defiance of the law, statistics show that more than 40% of them – and perhaps more than 50% -- first enter the country legally and then overstay their visas. Wilma Tenobro falls into this category, emigrating from the Philippines with a special visa for a job on a cruise ship. When she met Lt. Tenobro (a naturalized U.S. citizen also born in the Philippines) she fell in love and overstayed her visa. After their marriage, the new couple tried to get it renewed, without success. The immigration system in this country is so irrational, bureaucratic and frustratingly slow, that many immigrants who try to follow the law find themselves in Kafkaesque situations. In some cases, visa renewal require a return to their home countries but according to 1996 legislation, a lapsed visa holder who leaves the country for any reason can expect to wait 10 years before getting legal permission to return.
No one could suggest that all the millions of people with visa problems make positive contributions to the country – any more than claiming that all illegals in general are unanimously good-hearted, industrious and reliable. Every group of illegal immigrants, like every category of legal immigrants, includes some combination of the good, the bad and ugly.
A wise immigration policy must therefore make serious efforts to sort through these populations to separate the worthy from the unworthy as potential additions to this country. In pursuing that purpose, it makes obvious sense to grant legal residency for the likes of Wilma Tenobro at the same time that we make it easier to block legal residency (or even strip it) from anti-American conspirators like Faisal Shahzad. As society makes meaningful distinctions between the immigrants we want and those we don’t, it’s more important to consider how they’ve conducted themselves since arriving in this country than to focus exclusively on how they got here in the first place.
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