Immigration Imbroglio

Posted: Mar 31, 2006 3:05 PM
Politics is said to be the art of the possible. Assuming that’s true, the country might yet get a workable compromise on immigration policy. Maybe even in this election year.

To make that happen, lawmakers will have to reconcile a strong bill (which has already passed the House) with a weaker one (which is under discussion in the Senate). The House measure would make it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally. Right now, illegal immigration is a merely civil offense. Clearly millions of people are more enticed by the opportunity to work here illegally than are frightened off by the threat of being arrested. Maybe tougher penalties would help. It wouldn’t hurt to try.

At the same time, we should encourage local authorities to enforce already existing federal laws.

In Los Angeles police aren’t allowed to ask about immigration status; that should change. TIME magazine last month reported on a better approach. Local police on Long Island were “taking down information about the vehicles that came to the East Hampton railroad station to pick up day laborers.” The cops informed the IRS that the car’s owners might be hiring illegals and should be investigated. That’s a good way to reduce illegal employment.

We should also create a “documented worker” program. But here’s where the Senate measure goes off the tracks, because such a program must not be an amnesty program.

We can’t afford to reward people simply for getting here. The laws of supply and demand note that, in that case, we’ll only encourage more people to make a run for the border in the days before the law changes.

Instead, a guest worker program should be one that people can only apply to from outside the U.S. If a worker is already here and has an employer willing to vouch for him, he’d have a leg up at becoming a documented worker, but he’d still have to “tag up” by returning to his homeland and filling out the paperwork there.

Private companies could set up databases of documented workers, and employers could hire with confidence they weren’t hiring any illegals or breaking any laws.

The House bill is far from perfect. One provision can be read to require that anyone who helps an illegal immigrant is committing a crime.

It’s this provision that led Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles to tell his priests to break the law if it passes. Hopefully it’ll never come to that. Lawmakers should make clear that they’re attempting to crack down on those who ferry illegals across the border, not on those who -- for perfectly acceptable religious reasons -- attempt to feed the poor and clothe the naked.

We should also encourage high-tech immigration. It’s sad that it’s easier for a migrant to sneak across the Texas border than it is for a computer engineer to move here legally from Britain. Under a responsible immigration program, we’d reverse those outcomes.

Immigrants built this country -- but remember that they came here legally, assimilated and became Americans. Today, there are at least 11 million people among us who can never assimilate.

Illegal immigrants must keep their heads down and remain sequestered in isolated immigrant communities, except when they come out to march in Los Angeles, waving Mexican flags while claiming, incongruously, “We are Americans.” No, you’re not -- and that’s what we must change, either by making you Americans or by encouraging you to return home.

It’s a simple fact: We can’t round up 11 million people and deport them. We don’t have the jail space, the truck space or the policing ability to solve this problem that way.

But if we enforce our existing laws and force employers to hire only documented, legal immigrants, we can start thinning the ranks of illegals.

Immigration is a tricky problem, but one we can solve. Doing so will require a mix of carrots (guest worker program) and sticks (better law enforcement, tougher penalties). The stakes are high -- a country that doesn’t control its borders can’t remain a country for long. That’s why it’s critical that lawmakers make the right compromises and start us on a path to solving illegal immigration.