editorial (2006-13)

Open the Door

Give illegal immigrants a way to earn their way to legality

Open the Door

The U.S. Senate has the opportunity and the obligation to reaffirm itself as “the world’s greatest deliberative body” over the next week as it considers the issue of immigration reform.

There has hardly been an issue in this young century that is more complicated in the eyes of government leaders or more controversial in the eyes of the U.S populace than immigration, specifically extra-legal immigration from Mexico.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved a bill this week that would address both the porosity of our southern border and the plight of undocumented workers who have immigrated across that border by the millions to gain employment in the United States.

It is not that far from President Bush’s proposals. Both the senators’ bill and Bush’s plan would include provisions creating “guest worker” status for undocumented workers that would allow them to earn green cards and the chance to apply for U.S. citizenship over time.

That is a highly enlightened approach to the problems facing the 11-to-12 million immigrants who are in the United States illegally, and who are performing tasks that the rest of the U.S. workforce shuns, mostly in agriculture, piecework and construction.

The Senate bill and the president’s program also contain provisions for shoring up border security, but both reject the notions that illegal immigration should be reclassified as a federal felony or that a fence nearly 2,000 miles long should be built along the border with Mexico as a sort of Berlin wall in reverse, to keep undocumented Mexicans out. A House bill that passed last December contains the felony provision, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s proposals embrace the fence idea. As the first is draconian and the second quixotic, neither should survive to become a part of the needed immigration reform law.

Workers from south of the border—there are hundreds of them in Knoxville and thousands in East Tennessee—have been very productive. They also spend earnings here, contributing to the local economy and our sales-dependent tax base.

The Senate bill was drawn up and co-sponsored by Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrat Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. It would require undocumented workers who want to achieve legal status to pay a fine (perhaps in the $500 range), obtain a Social Security Card, pass a background check, start paying taxes and maintain a clean record. In about five years, a successful applicant would be issued a green card, and in another few years become eligible to seek citizenship.

Both the senators who back it and the president insist that the program does not offer amnesty, as was done 20 years ago when the undocumented immigrant worker population was hardly a tenth of what it is today. And it doesn’t. It emphasizes a path to a green card and citizenship that immigrants must follow to earn their way to legal status.

It is opposed, both as a way for immigrants to get around existing law and as a form of “amnesty,” by great numbers of Americans—a surveyed 60-plus percent— who want undocumented laborers deported. If you suspect that elements of racism and exclusivity exist in such opposition, you may well be right in many cases.

Bless his heart, in this instance at least, President Bush is speechifying in favor of immigration in ways that suggest that he believes in it. He says, correctly and passionately, that this nation is a nation of immigrants and their progeny, that “citizens from across the globe…have helped shape our identity and sustain our economy.”

Sens. Kennedy and McCain have made similar appeals in support of their legislation. It is worth considering that if Kennedy, McCain and Bush agree on such principles and how, for the most part, to address the current immigration problem, there is probably a good reason to support that unlikely trio’s suggestions.

The other consideration, the nation’s security and the difficulty of closing its borders to illegals, undesirables and outright terrorists, is worthy as well, but it is nearly impossible to achieve. The Canadian border, twice as long as the Mexican border and far less patrolled or monitored, would offer much easier entry to the United States for a real security risk, a person or persons bent on terrorism.

Yet it’s impossible to think of the Congress not taking further steps to seal the Mexican border as much as is humanly and budgetarily possible. Frist, the Tennessee Republican, is asking for up to 15,000 more border guards, nearly doubling the 20,000 now serving the area. He talks of drug-smuggling and potential terrorists as well as illegal immigrants, as if smuggling in all forms weren’t an art that stays a step ahead of law enforcement as long as the profits to be made or other motives to be satisfied are strong enough. It’s an expensive trade-off, but we’ll probably have to pay for that vain exercise in the spirit of compromise.

So, let’s go ahead and do what the president wants in this case, the public majority notwithstanding. Let’s give the hard-working immigrant population the will and the way to achieve legal residence and the chance for citizenship down the road.

We’re not going to arrest 12 million people. We’re not going to deport 12 million. We’re not able to do anything to punish or even to move 12 million people. And we’re angering many millions of legal immigrants in the process of promoting such xenophobic aims.

Let’s put the great American process of welcoming immigrants back to work. In the long run, we’ll all be glad we did.