- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 19, 2005

“So what is it about the word illegal you don’t understand?” It wasn’t so much a question from a reader about my columns on illegal immigration, but a taunt from a critic.

But it’s still a good question, and deserves to be addressed. Indeed, it’s the strongest part of the other side’s case in a controversy that’s bound to grow even more heated in the months and years ahead unless some kind of national consensus can be reached.

There are now an estimated 8 million to 10 million illegals in this country, and that’s a conservative estimate. Many more are sure to come unless we can agree on how to deal with the challenge — or whether to deal with it at all.

The country’s real if unofficial policy on illegal immigration until now largely has been to ignore it. Result: The flow across our southern border ever increases, along with disrespect for the immigration laws. Many other areas are affected: health-and-safety standards, minimum-wage laws, payroll taxes.

After all, how can these people complain? Officially, they’re not here; they’re unpersons. Without rights. Or at least without any rights they dare exercise. The world of the illegal alien may be as close to peonage as this country has come since the worst of the old sharecropper system.

Those who would just round up all these millions of illegals and deport them advocate a “solution” that, however satisfying it may be to demand, won’t solve anything. They might as well try to repeal the law of supply and demand. Or, like King Canute, command the waves to stop. So long as there is a huge supply of labor just across the border — millions of desperately poor people — and a great demand for them here, they’ll continue to sneak across. (Wouldn’t you?)

Even if we were somehow able to find and arrest every one of these illegals (so they could begin the round trip all over again) we would have succeeded mainly in crippling vital segments of our own economy, whether agriculture in California or construction in Northwest Arkansas or menial jobs in every service industry coast to coast.

The Bush administration has proposed something better: a new version of the old bracero program that would allow foreign labor to sign up for a limited but renewable period — three years — before being required to return home.

To participate, employers would have to show no Americans could be found to fill the jobs offered foreign workers.

As temporary and now legal workers, these folks would be free to visit home and maintain their ties there without fear of being denied re-entry to the States. They would be allowed to apply for citizenship or for legal residence — the treasured green card — but not ahead of legal applicants.

These guest workers would have to return home at the end of their three years here to reapply for the program, or if they chose to apply for permanent residence, they would have to wait their turn. They would get no advantage over those immigrants who had followed the rules.

No, it’s not a perfect solution. There will always be those trying to sneak in, but surely many of the illegals who have been here for years, who have been steadily employed and have a clean record, would want to legalize their status.

Combined with beefed-up border patrols and stricter enforcement of the immigration laws in general, the administration’s approach might not solve the problem but it might make it manageable.

With such a system in place, it would be easier for law enforcement to differentiate legal from illegal immigrants. The job of guarding our borders would be simplified, and therefore the country’s security would be enhanced. Labor standards could be more easily enforced, and the economy allowed to grow legally. We might know where these people were, and they would have legal protections many are now afraid to claim.

The millions now in this country illegally would have to pay a fee — in effect, a fine for having evaded the law — to become legal. But surely it would be worth it to come out of hiding and not fear arrest at any time.

No, the president’s proposal won’t please those on either extreme of this debate, but it has the great advantage of making sense. Why not try to regulate and direct this newest wave rather than let it swamp or divide us?

Why not try to put together a national consensus and a workable compromise? Or would that be unspeakably sensible?

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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