Immigration Nation: Rule of Law in the Land of Opportunity

As we approach the 2006 midterm elections, Congress is finally starting to tackle one of the issues that Americans have been seeking action on for years: illegal immigration. America’s current immigration policy is broken, and it must be fixed. The House has already passed sweeping immigration reform, and the Senate is now debating various proposals of its own. The illegal immigration debate is dividing political enemies and allies alike, as lawmakers try to simultaneously solve the problem while also protecting their political standing.

While it is clear that there are no easy answers, there are two simple elements that any immigration reform must include if it is to be a success. First, the primary goal has to be protecting our nation’s borders and stemming the tide of illegal immigrants who are pouring into our country each day at alarming rates. Second, we must deal realistically with the illegal immigrants already residing in the U.S., and not pretend that either mass deportation or wholesale amnesty will alleviate the problems that illegal immigration has wrought.

Protecting Our Borders

It is estimated that nearly 3 million illegal immigrants enter the United States each year — 8,200 per day, 340 per hour. This daily influx of anonymous persons has very real security and economic consequences for our nation. No one would argue that most of the people illegally crossing our borders each day are terrorists or are seeking to harm us. Most likely, the vast majority of these people are poverty-stricken and in search of a new start. Others, however, have less noble reasons for crossing America’s borders. For all illegal immigrants, regardless of their reasons for wanting to live in America, their presence here (and their methods of entry) cannot be deemed irrelevant.

How can America truly feel secure when her back door is left wide open to any and all who want to come in? Doesn’t protecting our homeland require that we know who and what is entering our homeland? Any real reform emanating from Capitol Hill must first concentrate on substantially reducing the vulnerabilities of our borders. From increasing the number of border guards, to building barriers and employing surveillance technology, the primary goal for Congress must be appropriating the resources necessary to control our borders.

The 12 Million Already Here

Once a strong border security policy is in place, Congress must turn its attention to the dicey issue of what to do with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already living here — resident non-citizens who have both positive and negative impacts on our economy. On the one hand, our economy depends on illegal immigrants. Every day, many of these hard working laborers perform tasks that few Americans want to perform. Without them, the American economy would be adversely impacted. Due to declining birth rates and an aging society, there is a shortage of workers in our labor force. Without immigration, there would not be enough workers to perform jobs necessary to sustain America’s economy.

However, it is also true that illegal immigrants are a drain on America’s pocketbook, particularly due to the health care and other public services these immigrants avail themselves of without having paid the taxes and fees necessary to fund them. For example, according to Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California taxpayers shell out well over $1 billion each year to pay costs incurred by illegal immigrants. On the opposite coast, it is estimated that New Jersey hospitals alone lose more than $200 million each year providing services to illegal immigrants. Further, it is likely that the low wages paid under the table to illegal immigrants depress the market mechanisms that set wages in the marketplace and artificially lowers the wages of American workers.

What to do? Neither a mass deportation nor a wholesale granting of amnesty will solve these problems. Can anyone truly imagine the federal government having the ability to round up and deport millions of illegal immigrants? As George Will suggested this week, such a task would require "200,000 buses in a caravan stretching bumper-to-bumper from San Diego to Alaska." Similarly, granting amnesty and automatic citizenship to illegal immigrants who broke the law to get here would only encourage the practice and exacerbate the problem.

The best possible solution to this vexing issue is to provide an opportunity for illegal immigrants to come out from the shadows and receive work permits, with the goal of one day obtaining full citizenship. To obtain these permits there ought to be requirements. Some have suggested that they should have to pay back-taxes and/or fines. Others have suggested that while they can be put on the path to citizenship, they should have to wait in line behind citizens from their home countries who are in the process of immigrating to the U.S. legally. Whatever the details, our nation’s policy must be one that discourages continued lawbreaking but also rewards those who pay restitution (via fines, back-taxes, etc.) and seek to now assimilate more fully into American life. Then, these immigrants will not only be able to enjoy American life, they will also be required to pay the taxes necessary to fund it.

Some claim it would hurt American businesses if they had to pay fair wages to the illegal immigrants that are currently providing a steady flow of cheap labor. Such businesses, however, should not have designed their business plans around the exploitation of illegal workers. Any business that hires an immigrant under the table, paying them unjust wages, sometimes with inhumane working conditions, is performing an immoral and illegal act that should be stopped.

Finally, America must also address the international situations that bring many of the illegal immigrants here in the first place. Too many Central and South American nations are not meeting the needs of their own people, and are even complicit in their citizens’ race toward America. The Mexican government, for example, has failed miserably in building an economy that provides opportunity for all (the underemployment rate is estimated at 20-25 percent). And as recently as yesterday, Mexican President Vicente Fox refused to do more to prevent his citizens from illegally immigrating to the U.S., claiming that such efforts would violate the "freedom of movement" guaranteed in Mexico’s Constitution. As President Bush meets with Mr. Fox this week, he must make clear that while America is willing to help Mexico rebuild its economy, we will also hold Mexico accountable when it allows government corruption to counteract our efforts, and when it effectively encourages illegal immigration into America.

Tell Congress to Act

To be sure, immigration reform will not be easy for Congress to pull off, particularly with the 2006 and 2008 elections looming in the background. Americans, however, are clamoring for change. By securing our borders and dealing realistically with the 12 million illegal immigrants already here, America will be well on her way to building a just society that respects both human dignity and the rule of law.

To encourage your Senators to support comprehensive immigration reform, click here.