March 30, 2006

March 30, 2006 | Commentary on Immigration

Not another amnesty Immigration is a about more than politics

Watching the Senate Judiciary Committee vote for what is effectively another amnesty for illegal immigrants is pretty galling. Numerous immigration and border security bills are moving in Congress, and immigration is sure to be a hot button issue in November's mid-term election. But the bill that was voted out of the Senate committee on Monday by a 12 to 6 vote, and is gathering momentum in part because of demonstrations in California and elsewhere has left Republicans deeply divided and has provisions that are truly problematic.

The bill would legalize the 11 million illegal immigrants currently residing in the United States. It would further hold out the promise of citizenship to those who have jobs, learn English, and pay fines and taxes. How many that will be is of course a question, but the bottom line is that by a stroke of the pen, 11 million people will move from illegal to legal status. There is only one message this can send to others who are looking to enter this country illegally - it's every bit worth the gamble because eventually, you too will get your green card.

By contrast, the bill that passed in the House of Representatives, and which is occasioning a lot of the demonstrations would make it a felony to reside illegally in the United States. That may sounds good to those who want to get tough on immigration, but can only be enforced if we start building more prisons tomorrow and as far as the eye can see.

Now, the Senate legislation also has more promising aspects as well, to wit a temporary guest worker program that would allow about 400,000 guest workers to come to the United States a year. This is a much more reasonable approach. Most illegal immigrants are here to seek jobs, and American employers need them - which is a big part of the pressure on Republicans. Guest workers would be like other working visa holders, H or I visa holders, regulated legal basis within a set of understandable guidelines, which can and must be lawfully enforced.

A major problem with the U.S. immigration process is its susceptibility to political winds. That immigration benefits the United States immensely is not in doubt, but both Republicans and Democrats seek the votes and backing of pro-immigration groups at various times throwing the entire process into illogical disarray.

The idea of another amnesty is particularly outrageous when you are among those who had to invest a lot of patience, effort and in some cases lawyers' fees to get through the U.S. immigration process in the legal way. This writer is one of them, having resided in the United States for 25 years, and becoming a proud citizen after 16. Millions of us have jumped through the legal hoops in order to get that coveted green card.

And then we find -- as yours truly did in the late 1980s -- that illegal immigrants at various times have been able to get their green cards by simply walking into an INS office and confessing their transgression. The1980s produced two amnesties, and the consequence was - oddly enough - another flow of illegal immigration. Condoning illegal behavior is the way to create a problem, not solve one.

That the U.S. legal immigration process is frustrating and slow is beyond doubt. The INS bureaucracy is sometimes startlingly erratic, and immigration judges can be mercurial. But it also ensures that those who make it through are truly committed to your oath of U.S. citizenship - you really have to be. And you know that becoming an American citizen is a privilege, not a right.

Sometimes, of course, you do get lucky with the direction of the political winds. In the late 1990s, President Clinton's citizenship initiative - which was designed to create a lot more Democrat voters ahead of the 1996 presidential election- greased the skids for yours truly among many others. However, at the citizenship ceremony in the D.C. courthouse, only about half of those scheduled to be there turned up. The rest were caught up in belated criminal background checks that had been neglected in the rush before the elections.

When you finally take your oath of citizenship, none of that matters, of course. It is a huge and meaningful moment. Is there any way to get politics out of the immigration process? Probably not, but it is still worth remembering that principles and nationhood is what it is all about.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom