- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 2, 2005

It’s unlikely, maybe even impossible, to put aside all feelings evoked by the phrase and red flag “illegal immigration.”

Wave those words around often enough, and loudly enough, and you’ll produce a debate just as confused as that in the U.S. Senate over the filibuster — but much more volatile. This is a subject that excites the people, not just politicians.

Each side has its own banner — Illegal Aliens versus A Nation of Immigrants. But a slogan is not an argument, no matter how often or how loudly repeated.

Let’s try a thought experiment:

Suppose we could put aside all the distracting and provoking rhetoric about illegal immigration and come up with a common, constructive policy. What would it look like?

First, such a policy would make our borders more secure, instead of the sieve they have become. Immigration needs to be made orderly so the Border Patrol can focus on looking for dangerous terrorists instead of people just seeking work.

As for the millions of illegals already here, ideally we would find a way for them and their children to become recognized residents and then law-abiding citizens, instead of fugitives forever vulnerable to exploitation and discrimination.

At the same time, such a policy would need be fair. No illegals should be allowed to cut in line and become eligible for legal status ahead of immigrants who have followed the rules — and have waited years before being allowed into this country.

Those illegals willing to come out from the shadows would pay a hefty fine — no amnesty — and become part of an open process leading to full participation in American society.

For now, these illegals are part of a vast underground economy, with all the abuses, uncertainties and dangers that go with it. They are in effect unpersons — without the rights and protections that come with legal status. They need to be matched with willing employers, openly and legally.

A workable policy would recognize not just the illegals’ interest in becoming Americans but the country’s interest in them, for they play a crucial role in the economy. And their posterity will play a crucial role in the country’s future.

Illegal immigrants now constitute a second, hidden America. No economy — or republic — can hope to thrive off the books. The alternative — just pick ‘em up (by the millions) and send ‘em back — makes for great demagoguery but poor policy. Besides being cruel and self-destructive (think of what mass deportations would do to the economy), such a simplistic reaction to a complicated problem is unrealistic. It just ain’t gonna happen.

In short, a fair and constructive policy would look a lot like the bill just introduced by Sens. John McCain, Arizona Republican, and Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, and co-sponsored in the House by Reps. Jim Kolbe and Jeff Flake, both Arizona Republicans, and Luis Gutierrez, Illinois Democrat. Their bill in turn looks a little like the guest-worker program George W. Bush proposed last year, though it’s a decided improvement.

For example, the McCain-Kennedy bill wouldn’t require these immigrants to return home after three years to apply for permanent residence. Instead, it would allow them to visit family and return freely thanks to a special new visa. And it would require three years’ residence to attain permanent residence (the coveted green card) and another three years of good behavior here to apply for citizenship. Also proposed is a new public-private corporation to teach immigrants English and civics and prepare them to become full-fledged Americans.

No, this approach won’t eliminate illegal immigration entirely, but nothing will so long as the jobs are here and the people desperate for work are there. People will go where work is. It’s a law of economics, and maybe a law of nature. One might as well try to halt the tide.

There will always be those who, when confronted by a broken system, would rather do almost anything but fix it — mainly jump up and down and fulminate. You can see how well that has worked over the past decade. Playing on fear and prejudice may further the careers of politicians who know how to ride bad feelings into office, but it won’t help the country.

Too much time has been wasted thinking in terms of Them and Us. It’s time to think of how best to come together as We.

Or, in the Founders’ phrase, how to form a more perfect Union.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.


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