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Lifting Our Lamps, Or Putting Them Out

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There have always been two Americas: that of rich and of poor, of inclusion and of exclusion. For many of us, the America of inclusion has found expression in the voices of Martin Luther King Jr., who had an incredible dream, and Emma Lazarus, whose poem "The New Colossus" inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty has for more than one hundred years beckoned the world to give America its tired, its poor, and its huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

The America of exclusion has long found its expression in the xenophobic and prejudicial voices of groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation. Today, it finds its voice in two Republican members of the House of Representatives, Congressmen James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin and Tom Tancredo of Colorado.

House Judiciary Chairman and Milwaukee-area Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner has been the driving force behind the harshest anti-immigration legislation in American history. The vicious bill Sensenbrenner, and House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R-NY) pushed through the House of Representatives last December would reclassify the roughly twelve million illegal aliens currently residing inside the United States as felons, and criminalize anyone who aids, hires, or counsels them.

Known as the Border Protection, Anti-Terrorism and Illegal Immigration Act of 2005 (H.R. 4437), this thoroughly protectionist and punitive bill would make it a federal crime to live in the U.S. illegally, and render illegal immigrants permanently ineligible to earn legal immigration status. By designating illegal immigration as a felony rather than a civil violation, and creating mandatory minimum sentences for captured illegals, this extreme bill would overwhelm our courts and clog our prisons with a population as large as Ohio's.

Congressional sponsors believe that these mere threats will force the undocumented to simply leave. The reality is that most have little or nothing to return to and will try to remain, driven further underground and deeper into poverty as they are restricted to working in the cash economy. Realizing this, the Sensenbrenner-King bill also includes the CLEAR Act (H.R. 3137), which would coerce state and local police into enforcing the new federal immigration laws, in effect deputizing them as federal agents and thus undermining their usual and already overburdened law enforcement roles.

Imagine America turning twelve million people into felons, and anyone who helps them. Outlawed would be the kind of assistance or refuge routinely provided by churches, social service agencies, food-relief workers, teachers, physicians and any other decent, caring people in this country who are moved to "love thy neighbor". Offenders would face up to five years in prison, and federal authorities could seize some assets of those convicted. Is this what is meant by "compassionate conservatism"?

To be sure, there are sharp divisions among Republicans on the issue of immigration reform. Inclusionist, business-minded Republicans, along with most Democrats, look at the waves of immigrants and see a powerful work force. They see people who work hard, build community groups, and have traditional and socially conservative ideas about family. They see future Americans, whose long-term contributions to our society will more than compensate for the short-term strains they cause. And these Republicans realize the potential for a generations-long backlash, as millions of current and potential new voters - the largest and fast-growing minority in the U.S. - will be repulsed by the Republican Party for the next hundred years if they don't get this right.

Then there are the exclusionist, anti-immigrant Republicans, who look at the same group of immigrants and see a flood of invaders and lawbreakers who threaten our national security and American jobs and culture. They want the borders to be closed forever, and all twelve million illegal immigrants to be jailed or deported, along with their three million U.S.-born and thus U.S.-citizen children. These Republicans have found their hero in Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who formed and heads the ill-named House Immigration Reform Caucus, now about ninety members.

Tancredo opposes birth-right citizenship, whereby babies born in the U.S automatically become American citizens. He fans anti-immigrant and racist flames with fear-mongering statements, such as "Yes, many who come across the border are workers. But among them are people coming to kill me and you and your children." He strongly advocated the inclusion, within the Sensenbrenner-King bill, of funding for a $2.2 billion, 700-mile fence along the two thousand mile border with Mexico. Until its completed construction, Tancredo wants this border patroled by American troops.

Tancredo and his supporters want no part of any program, such as the bipartisan bill offered last month by the Senate Judiciary Committee, which, in the end, would grant some sort of legal residence - derisively termed "amnesty" by opponents - to the twelve million undocumented workers already living here. The Senate bill, while flawed and complicated and incomplete, not to mention starkly at odds with the House bill, does just that.

It would tighten borders while rewarding virtue. It would offer guest worker programs that would provide a path for those already in the country to legalize their status and progress toward possible citizenship by paying a financial penalty and back taxes. Bottom line, under the Senate bill, immigrants who worked hard, paid fines, paid their taxes, learned English, stayed out of trouble and waited their turn would have a chance to become citizens. Who could have a problem with that?

Plenty of House Republicans is who. Which accounts for the Senate stalemate before the Easter recess, even as leaders in both parties publicly endorsed the basic principles of the Judiciary Committee plan. Democrats fear that even if the bill passes the Senate in its current form, it will be hardened to be more like the House bill when Senate Republicans meet their House counterparts in conference to reconcile their bills.

No one knows what will happen next. Immigration reform would pose an enormous challenge in the best of times, which these bitterly partisan times clearly are not. The battle lines between the inclusionists and the exclusionists are being drawn across America, dividing Americans. Will we continue our rich tradition of hundreds of years of welcoming new vitality to our nation, or will we put up walls? If it is to be walls, then we might just as well take down Lady Liberty, for she will no longer be true. Lift up our lamps, or put them down - it is time for Americans to decide.
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Todd Huffman is a pediatrician and writer living in Eugene, Oregon. He is a regular contributor to many newspapers and publications throughout the Pacific Northwest.
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