Thursday, December 11, 2003

We disagree with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge’s remarks on Wednesday supporting the legalization of millions of illegal immigrants now living in the United States. Speaking at a town hall meeting in Miami Wednesday, Mr. Ridge declared that the government “had to come to grips with the presence of 8 million to 12 million illegals” now in the country, in order “to afford them some kind of legal status some way.” While Mr. Ridge said he was not advocating the granting of citizenship to this group, history suggests that legalization is often a first step in that direction. The idea of legalization is not new for the Bush administration; it was seriously considering granting permanent residency for illegals right before the September 11 attacks. Late Wednesday, Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security, said that Mr. Ridge’s remarks simply reflected the congressional debate on immigration, and that the administration had not taken a firm policy stance on the matter. But even a soft policy stance would be unacceptable.

It’s time for the administration to put this bad idea to rest. We believe that legal immigration to the United States is a good thing for our country. But the same is not true of illegal immigration. When someone decides to sneak into this country or to overstay their visa, they show a disrespect for an important principle that should unite us as Americans: adherence to the rule of law.

Of course, the great majority of illegals are not terrorists; rather, they have broken our immigration laws in the hope of attaining a better standard of living for their families. But that does not make the violation of our borders any more acceptable. Most Americans — whether citizens or legal resident aliens — are here today because, at some point during the last few centuries, either they or their ancestors decided to legally immigrate to this country. That meant putting up with long lines while waiting to apply for visas and jumping through myriad other bureaucratic hoops. But at the end of this process, these people could honestly say that they had earned the right to be here.

This process continues to this very day. Anyone who has had the opportunity to visit an American Embassy in a place like Guatemala City, for example, will find long lines stretching out the building door, filled with locals applying for visas to enter the United States. These people are doing things the right way. Anytime the government attempts to short circuit the process through legalization, it rewards people who disobey the rules at the expense of those who comply with them. That’s precisely the wrong message to send to people seeking to become American citizens or attain some alternative form of lawful status.

Even if there were no significant terrorist threat to the American homeland, there would still be compelling reasons to oppose mass legalization. The U.S. government cannot abandon the position that as a sovereign nation, we have the right and the duty to protect our borders.

For nearly two years, Mr. Ridge has served with dedication and distinction as the federal government’s top official protecting the homeland from terrorist attack. The country continues to be well-served by his performance of that thankless, absolutely critical job. But he was in error in suggesting mass legalization. We would urge the president to make it unmistakably clear that the concept is dead.

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