- The Washington Times - Monday, April 24, 2006

The immigration bill passed by the House of Representatives made it a felony for an illegal alien to be in the United States and for others to aid or abet that illegality.

Even many people who want to see serious immigration restrictions and the securing of our borders thought it was going too far to turn people who operate soup kitchens or day care centers into felons if illegal immigrants used their services.

It is wrong to try to make private citizens enforcers of our immigration laws, whether they are church groups or employers. We don’t demand private citizens do the work of firemen or policemen. Why should they have to do the work immigration and border control agencies don’t do?

A felony provision for people who provide incidental humanitarian aid that is available to citizens and noncitizens alike never had a chance to survive in immigration legislation that must pass both the Senate and the House, so much of the hysteria about this provision was overplayed.

As for the illegal immigrants, it is a little much to say we should not “criminalize” illegal activity. Innocent failures to comply with all the red tape immigration laws entail is one thing. There is no need to turn people who slip up on some visa requirement or other technicality into felons to be locked up with hardened criminals.

But that is very different from saying someone who deliberately scales a wall around our borders should escape criminal penalties.

If deliberate and flagrant violations of American immigration laws are to be nothing more than misdemeanors, liberal judges across the country can give wrist-slap punishments or suspend sentences entirely. Nothing will likely that prove a serious deterrent.

The mockery of our laws would simply be moved from the borders or the workplace to the courtrooms. But it would take time for such courtroom mockery to become widely known — and so long as it doesn’t become widely known before the next election, the politicians who pass weak immigration laws would be home free.

There is another aspect of the immigration issue that has received little or no attention but can have a serious effect anyway. Amnesty would mean, for many illegal immigrants, that they would not merely have the same rights as American citizens, but special privileges as well.

Affirmative action laws and policies already apply to some immigrants. Members of a multimillionaire Cuban family have already received government contracts set aside for minority businesses. During one period, an absolute majority of the money paid to construction companies in D.C. went to Portuguese businessmen under the same preferences.

Immigrant members of Latino, Asian or other minority groups are legally entitled to the same preferential benefits accorded native-born members of minority groups.

The moment they set foot on American soil, they are entitled to receive benefits created originally with the rationale of compensating for the injustices minorities had suffered in this country.

The illegal status of many “undocumented workers” can at least make them reluctant to claim these privileges. But, take away the illegality and they become not only equal to American citizens, but more than equal.

Preferential access to jobs, government contracts and college admissions are among the many welfare state benefits that add to the costs of immigrants not paid by employers of “cheap labor” but by the general public in taxes and other ways.

Even when illegal immigrants do not claim preferential treatment, employers are still under pressure to hire according to the demographic composition of the local labor force, which includes these “undocumented workers.” Employers are subject to legal penalties if the ethnic composition of their employees deviates much from the ethnic composition of the population.

“Cheap labor” can turn out to be the most expensive labor this country has ever had.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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