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Making Sense of Sensible Immigration Reform

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(The first article of this series, "Lifting Our Lamps or Putting Them Out", was posted on OpEdNews on Saturday, April 22nd.)

No one is debating whether illegal immigration is, well, illegal. The unauthorized migration of people across borders is restricted by the laws of every nation on earth, which is as it should be. Every nation has the right to control its borders.

With the illegal population in America growing by a half-million people per year, everyone agrees the status quo is simply untenable. The last two decades have seen the largest cross-border migration in human history, as millions of Mexicans, and Central and South Americans left countries where wages were a fifth or a tenth as high, and pushed northward for a shot at a better life. Others came as refugees or asylum-seekers, fleeing violence and persecution in their homelands. No doubt yet others came as criminals, fleeing arrest.

Legal mechanisms exist to gain entry into the United States. The U.S. has long been very generous about lawfully welcoming the disaffected from all corners of the globe. A wise nation in fact recognizes that such legalized immigration is essential to its future vitality and success. But there is little disagreement that we've lost control of our southern border, and that we must regain it so that it is we who decide who enters.

Whatever the solution, it needs to be one that recognizes illegal immigrants as fellow human beings. Most are guilty of nothing more than being hopeful. Many have been here for ten or twenty years, buying houses, giving birth to native-born Americans, raising families, participating in their communities, and just plain making a better life. To push them out, to send them back "home" when this country is, in fact, their home would be simply immoral.

We must let those who are here stay, and get tougher and better at discouraging and preventing those who would come. But this cannot be done by building a wall. Every nation having built a wall has learned that walls never provide the security promised. Ask China and East Germany how indestructible their walls. "Something there is that doesn't love a wall, that wants it down", as Robert Frost once reminded.

When the lure is jobs and a better life, illegal immigration will continue to find a way around any wall. Upwards of half a billion dollars has already been spent over the past decade on a "virtual" wall, including new border fences, sensors, stadium lighting, infrared scopes, remote-control cameras, Black Hawk helicopters, and even unmanned aerial drones to track illegals. And still they come, over a million each year, half of whom caught and returned. A wall may indeed slow them, but more likely it will simply just divert them elsewhere, perhaps to more dangerous water crossings.

Rather than spending billions on a wall, let us spend it building infrastructure such as roads, rail lines, and 21st century communications systems to support economic growth in northern Mexico. It will create jobs, and it is the least we can do. Since the United States pushed for passage of NAFTA in 1993, factory wages in Mexico have declined ten percent, and over a million Mexican subsistence farmers have been wiped out. Little wonder then that while before NAFTA only 2.5 million illegals were inside the United States, since NAFTA that number has grown fivefold.

Helping to grow the Mexican economy will reduce the attraction of illegal immigration to the United States. Likewise will heavily penalizing American companies that hire illegals. Laws have existed for twenty years making the hiring illegals illegal, but fines are laughably small, and enforcement has been nearly non-existent. Any sensible immigration reform would adopt a mandatory requirement for employers to verify new workers by an electronic checking system of documents, and any employer caught employing undocumented workers would suffer draconian fines, and jail time for repeat offences.

Any successful reform plan must also enlist the cooperation of the Mexican government, by arm-twisting if necessary. Mexico must do more, much more to impede the flow of their own people across their northern border, and of Central and South Americans across their southern frontier. Fully aware of how many billions of dollars are sent back to Mexico by its citizens working in the U.S., the Mexican government has hitherto been unwilling as much as unable to reduce illegal immigration northward.

Finally, immigration reform must grant the twelve million illegals already here permanent residency, and assure them a path to citizenship. But to be allowed on that path, illegal immigrants must have a job, pay back taxes if necessary, be fingerprinted and subject to a criminal background check, stay out of trouble, learn English, take citizenship classes, and wait in line behind those already waiting overlong in the legal line for citizenship. More than three in four Americans polled favor granting illegal immigrants legal standing, and offering them this path to "earned citizenship".

Yes, this amounts to full amnesty. But it's a one-time deal. Amnesty must not be open-ended. Any law granting permanent residency and a path to citizenship must be made effective immediately, upon the signature of the president, and apply only to those illegals within the United States as of that date, and not one day after. Anyone who cannot prove their presence in the U.S. before that date will be subject to a hearing and deportation. Otherwise, the already unstoppable river of illegal immigration will quickly rise to a flood ahead of any future set deadline after which the path to citizenship will cease to exist.

Sensible immigration reform would normalize and legalize the situation of the twelve million illegals already working in the shadows of our society. It would acknowledge their dignity and their contribution, and allow them to build lives with a future. It would continue to toughen border security, without building a wall that runs contrary to the spirit of America. It would let companies keep their illegal workers, but penalize them for hiring new ones. And it would help to create new economic opportunities for workers in their home countries.

No reform will be perfect. Something different may need done later. But something has to start being done now.
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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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