Immigration: The Ellis Island Solution

A recent survey we conducted for a private group revealed that most Americans believe in an “Ellis Island” approach as a realistic way to deal with illegal aliens living in the United States. Policymakers might want to listen up.

It’s now dawned on Republicans in the U.S. Senate that their embrace of President Bush’s policy solution for illegal immigration has put those senators running for re-election next year in a precarious spot.

Too many people see the bill before Congress as a convoluted way of offering “amnesty for sale” to illegals in the United States. And the more senators in support of the bill study its details, the more they come to realize that it has so many requirements and penalties for immigrants that no one in a practical bent of mind should probably reject it.

Regardless, many Americans see two problems with the legislation. First, many resentfully recall that their own ancestors or relatives who immigrated here from places like Ireland in times of great economic hardship did so through one designated place — Ellis Island in New York City. That portal into America served to process those immigrants and put them on the road to becoming part of the fabric of this nation.

Second, the proposed new federal legislation fails to provide an immigration process that’s guaranteed against bureaucratic loopholes.

Plenty of Americans, particularly plenty of the Republican Party’s conservative voting base, are skeptical that immigrants subject to the bill’s provisions will ever do more than simply pay a series of ongoing fees to keep them in the country.

Our InsiderAdvantage survey showed that a majority of Americans believe the most practical approach is to establish certain processing locations. There, illegals already living here would “surrender” to authorities.

What would Americans expect from these replications of Ellis Island? First, what they wouldn’t expect is that they would be glorified prisons. Instead, they would serve many overlapping and complementary purposes. They’d be holding and processing facilities of a sort, where everything from an immigrant’s health to his or her possible criminal background could be checked.

What would these housed immigrants do there? Work on public projects — building roads and schools, or providing manpower on the kinds of construction, transportation or public-private service projects that are gaining so much popularity in many states. Why the heck not?

Most importantly, American citizens would expect our new “Ellis Island” to culturally assimilate those who enter. The poll shows that Americans would like to see a requirement that immigrants become functionally literate in English before even being considered for permanent residence here.

Would this plan present logistical headaches? Absolutely. But probably no more, if as many, than those brought about by a plan to build a gargantuan fence along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Even so, it’s fair to ask where such assimilation centers might be built and how much they would cost. But our poll respondents believe America has spent so much money rebuilding and otherwise supporting foreign countries that redirecting some funds to deal head-on with this pressing domestic problem suddenly seems smart.

What I’ve outlined here is a unique proposal, granted. I’m not surprised. Experience in polling has taught me that the American public is often both more reasonable and imaginative in hatching doable new public policies than are their elected representatives in Washington.

Let’s put it this way: Why was an “Ellis Island” approach good for the goose of American history, but not for the gander of the present day? Millions of Americans have ancestors from Italy or Ireland or wherever, who were granted American citizenship, but who had to do a bit more than put two feet on American soil before earning that status. Why wouldn’t the same process be fair now, ask our poll respondents.

All this is a day late and a dollar short, of course. Rather than looking to the past for answers, our political leaders once again have broken the rules by trying to reinvent them. By trying to make everyone happy, they’ve made most everyone angry.

Still, there’s a lesson to be learned from our poll: When you’ve got a skeptical public, give them an intuitively sensible policy plan they can visualize. They’ll meet you more than halfway.