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Posted by on Mar 29, 2006 in At TMV | 20 comments

In search of a solution to illegal immigration

(Note: This post has also been published at the One America Committee Blog. An earlier version was published at The Reaction.)

From the L.A. Times: “A crowd estimated by police at more than 500,000 boisterously marched in Los Angeles on Saturday to protest federal legislation that would crack down on undocumented immigrants, penalize those who help them and build a security wall along the U.S.’s southern border.”

It should go without saying, but it is often forgotten: America is a nation of immigrants. It is true that many are in America illegally, but, as John F. Kennedy put it in a book with that very title, A Nation of Immigrants: “Immigration policy should be generous; it should be fair; it should be flexible.” Most immigrants are in America because they want to be. Some have risked their lives to come to what they see as, in Lincoln’s words, “the last, best hope of earth”. They came to America because, to them, America represents hope and opportunity, because it offers hope and opportunity to those who simply have neither elsewhere. Illegal or not, they now live in America and contribute to America. Indeed, they love America and want to stay. The march in L.A. this past weekend only reinforced this point.

To be sure, something needs to be done about “illegal” (or “undocumented”) immigration, but I must say this: Let America’s policy towards these immigrants be generous, fair, and flexible. Do not punish them for having chosen to come to America. Offer them an opportunity to settle, legally, for good. If they work, if they pay their taxes, if they accept the American way of life and want to be a part of it, indeed, if they are already American, broadly speaking, be generous to them. They only want to live their lives in Lincoln’s last, best hope, in a nation of immigrants that has historically welcomed the tired, the poor, the huddled masses who have yearned for the chance to start anew, to make a better life for themselves and their families.

These new Americans want to breathe free. Let them.


Such was my first reaction upon reading of the march on Saturday. We are all the children of immigrants, even our native peoples. We all come from somewhere else. I stand with those 500,000 in L.A. I celebrate them. They are all of us.

And yet the problem remains: What are we to do about illegal immigration? Everyone has an answer, or the beginning of an answer, yet no answer seems satisfactory. And my own initial answer — let them breathe free — just isn’t realistic. It would be wonderful if everyone could breathe freely, perhaps even in a world devoid of boundaries, but we need to deal with things as they are.

And, as they are, illegal immigration is a problem, whether we like it or not. And I say this not because I want to build a wall around America (or Canada, where we deal with different but related immigration issues) but because, as a liberal, I value the rule of law as the basis of our very way of life. Without it, or when it simply isn’t enforced with consistency, what are we left with?

I want an open immigration policy, but illegal immigrants circumvent open immigration by jumping ahead of those who are legally attempting to secure residency or citizenship. How is that fair? I want an expansive conception of residency and citizenship, a liberal conception, but illegal immigrants live and work in a sort of no-man’s-land deep in the shadows of society, among us but never quite with us. How is that just?

In addition, there are both security and economic concerns. With respect to the former, it is imperative that America have some semblance of control over its own borders. With respect to the latter, as Paul Krugman put it on Monday in The New York Times (available in full here), “many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration — especially immigration from Mexico”. This is because Mexican immigrants “increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans”. Unfortunately, illegal immigration hurts America’s working (and non-working) poor. Corporations would be more than happy to have a guest-worker program, as Krugman rightly argues. I suspect that the working poor, those who are barely clinging to self-sufficiency and who are struggling daily just to pay their bills, wouldn’t.

But, then, what to do about it? President Bush supports a three-pronged effort to secure the borders, enforce existing laws, and promote a guest-worker program that does not provide amnesty. The House supports draconian measures that would criminalize illegal immigrants and make supporting them a felony. From The Boston Globe (via Edward Copeland), here’s some of what else is being considered:

Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is crafting a bill that would establish a guest worker program and provide a path toward citizenship for undocumented aliens. Senator Bill Frist, R-Tenn., is writing his own bill to make criminals of illegal immigrants. A third measure, by Senators Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., would step up enforcement of existing laws and expand opportunities for foreigners to work in the United States, but would require illegal immigrants to pay back taxes and a fine before becoming authorized.

Do any of these options appeal to you? Frist is just rehashing the House bill, as expected, but Specter seems to be onto something.

Immigration could turn out to be one of the bigger and most divisive campaign issues both this year and in ’08. President Bush faces challenges from anti-immigration radicals within his own party, the xenophobic nationalist wing of the GOP. If there’s one issue where I find myself in at least partial agreement with him, this is it, although it’s not as if he has the political capital to withstand Congressional efforts to build Fortress America. For that, we’ll need the full force of the Democratic Party and those Republican dissidents who refuse to play this nasty game. Thankfully, there are intelligent, compassionate voices on both sides of the aisle, responsible officials who are working to find a solution. (For more, see here. I applaud Hillary Clinton’s efforts here.)

Like Krugman, I am “emotionally pro-immigration”. But: “We need to do something about immigration, and soon.” We must oppose all those draconian measures that have emerged from the far right, but we must also find some way to balance an open immigration policy that welcomes a steady influx of new Americans with a more realistic assessment of just what can be done to reduce illegal immigration without penalizing those who already make America their home.

That, to me, seems to be the truly American thing to do.

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