April 19, 2006

April 19, 2006 | Commentary on Immigration

Reforming immigration

The immigration debate has taken some interesting and startling turns since Congress, pushed by the White House, decided to tackle the issue. Not the least of them is the vocal participation of the millions of illegal immigrants who have come out of the shadows and found a voice. What they have had to say has been nothing short of fascinating and sometimes bizarre.

Comprehensive immigration reform that made the American immigration laws more logical, transparent and fair is absolutely desirable. But is it possible? Look at the heat of the current debate and the muddle in which the Senate and House legislation are stuck.

How, for instance, could we justify amnesty for illegal Mexican immigrants who have lived here for a number of years, no matter how decent and hardworking most of them undoubtedly are, when millions are on waiting lists for years or decades to join their families from other parts of the world? We would be bowing to the sheer pressure of logistics and the demographics across the border. No society built on laws can afford to lose control of its borders this way.

As very reasonably articulated by columnist Charles Krauthammer, Hispanic demonstrators who flocked to the Mall here in Washington and to open spaces in cities across the United States last week need to find a message that Americans can buy into. They have to accept that beyond their own needs and desire to make lives for themselves in the United States, is the need of the United States to form American citizens, and protect its border, its legal system and its social fabric. If such a realization came about in the Hispanic community, we would have come a long way towards developing more meaningful communication.

What is definitely not helpful is for illegal immigrants and their advocates to display allegiance to Mexico as the first waves of demonstrators did with their sea of Mexican flags. Nor does it help their cause when they insist that the Southwest of the United States was land "stolen" from them and that Americans are the real illegal immigrants, as some have done during the rallies. Granted, by last week's rally here in Washington, protesters had learned a good deal and were sporting white T-shirts and American flags instead.

Nor does it pass the laugh test when protesters have issued threats to go on strike and bring the United States to its knees. Clearly if you are here illegally to work and then fail to do that, you will be hurting yourself and your dependents most of all. Furthermore, their jobs are not likely to go begging for long.

Meanwhile, though it may seem that it is the Republicans who are taking a beating over the failure to craft an immigration bill, an interesting sidelight on this whole debate is the opposition of trade unions and minorities to any thought of amnesty or a guest-worker program. It is definitely not just Republicans who are having a hard time. Sens. Ted Kennedy and Dianne Feinstein have gotten an earful from AFL-CIO President John Sweeney, whose members do not want the competition from low-paid guest workers.

Similarly, African Americans, Asian Americans and other Hispanic Americans who have come here legally have lots of reservations about the guest-worker program and certainly also about the idea of an amnesty. There is also a deep sense of unfairness that those who persevered through the Byzantine U.S. immigration system will find themselves on par with those who have defied the laws of the country.

In the heat of the debate, though, we need to recall that the situation could be worse. Hispanic communities certainly can fit into the American social and cultural landscape, with their strong Catholic values and family traditions. In fact, they are a far better fit than the predominant immigrant groups in Europe from the Middle East and North Africa, who are Muslims settling in very secular European societies.

Furthermore, the United States is a success story like none other in history as far as immigration is concerned. No other country has been so welcoming to its immigrants, given them the kind of opportunities found here or has benefited as much from their hard work. But it has all been done within a framework that allowed for national cohesion and the rule of law. We cannot let go of that fact.

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

First appeared in the Washington Times