America has always been built on its cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity. All of us here today are derived from “outsiders” who came here to start a different kind of life than they previously had. Some groups have immigrated in slow but steady movement over time; other groups have come in concentrated waves. While we have been welcoming on the one hand, we have also been restrictive by instituting immigration quotas. These have often been tailored and directed at particular groups favored or unfavored, reflecting then-current racial or cultural prejudices. Our immigration history is not always a flattering picture, in spite of Lady Liberty’s inspiring words and our preferred self-image.
For the past 20 years, we have struggled with Mexicans (and more recently, masses of unaccompanied Central American children) illegally crossing our border to seek a better life for themselves and their families. Some of these immigrants are bad characters living crime-infused lives who need to be dealt with accordingly. But many have settled into quiet, productive, self-supportive lives, pursuing the American Dream and raising their children as any other responsible American does. Except that they are not legal citizens due to their illegal entry. And that is the crux of this unresolved problem hopelessly lost in petty politics for a generation as politicians on the left and right look for reelection votes from their hardcore constituencies.
By some estimates, there are over 10M illegal immigrants in America. They live in a never-never land of ambiguity, unable to pay for the services they receive because they live a denied existence. Those who are social or criminal misfits should be prosecuted accordingly and then deported. That is the easy part. But for the majority of illegals conducting themselves responsibly, there is simply no way America is going to round them up, pack them into trailer trucks, and drive them back across the border. Those who advocate for that course need to get over any expectation of that happening. Instead, we need to buck up, quit complaining, quit the partisan blame-game and finger-pointing, and move forward with the best solutions possible. The only practical recourse for us now is to assimilate these people into American society. End their “illegal” status, bring them out of the shadows, and properly enroll them onto the employed tax rolls to pay for their government benefits. For this, we need a new “green card” kind of status similar to that available to many other employed non-citizens. Thereby, end the threat of prosecution that keeps these people living in fear and uncertainty in the shadowed underbelly of our society.
But permission to live and work in America is not citizenship. Those who protest against a full pardon and a “pathway to citizenship” are correct: these immigrants broke the law by the manner in which they came. So forgiveness without prosecution – yes; pardon – no. Green card to work – yes; citizenship – no. For full citizenship rights, it is reasonable to get back in line, wait your turn, and retroactively complete the standard legal process. Just like everyone else. This is a fair compromise for all.
In the meantime, we need to revise our immigration rules to reflect today’s workforce needs. We have high-tech, talented foreign graduates educated in our colleges with much to offer the American economy – graduates that we force to leave America and take their talents back home. This is absurd, stupid and self-defeating. Also, we have jobs going begging in certain industries (e.g. factory production, agriculture, construction) which illegal immigrants are already partially filling. Both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and major labor unions have actually agreed on how to solve this need. Frankly, the employers and everyday citizens among us who are employing these immigrants are as culpable for our immigration problem as the immigrants themselves. If we are looking to deport the illegal immigrant, let us also jail their employers.
The children of these illegal immigrants are a special case. When a parent robs a store of food for his children, we put him in jail. We do not pass on “the sins of the father” to his children; we do not put his children in jail for eating the food. The children of these immigrants know only America as their home. We need to welcome them home without further pseudo-indignant grandstanding. For this piece of the problem, this is the compassionate America we claim to be.
That said, the current tidal wave of Central American children coming across the border is a different case. Certainly by all reports these children are highly at-risk in their home country. The 2008 law enacted near-unanimously by Congress and President Bush mandating placing such children with available relatives or adoption needs to be our first choice – it is the law. But where no such option exists, the remaining children need to be sent back home. They are in no position to be self-supporting here, and America is simply not capable of absorbing and providing custodial support to this volume of inflow – no matter how compassionate we may try to be. Treat these innocents well while they are temporarily in our care. But we have to send the strong message to families and governments back home that America cannot be the world’s foster home for the maltreated. America needs to have an open door; but it does need a door.
Once we make headway at ameliorating our current mess, we need to avoid a future repetition. Correcting our immigration rules and quotas is one step on that direction. Strengthening our border protections is another: fences, other physical barriers, radar detection, manpower and enforcement. These are things that need to be done. But the $40B appropriation passed by the Senate in order to get a Democratic and Republican compromise is absurd. To claim that reducing Washington’s budget is a top priority, while cutting long-standing services with a meat-ax, and then trying to justify this dollar amount to field a border police force bigger than the armies of more than a few countries behind a modern-day “iron curtain,” is no solution. Budgets are not just about total dollars; they are also about line-item priorities. In these tight times, the scale of this proposal does not justify breaking the government’s bank.
For some Americans, the illegal immigration problem is clearly a cover for racially prejudiced immigration such as we have demonstrated in the past. But for many other Americans, this is a vexing problem pitting a genuine desire to be welcoming to new arrivals against a conflict of conscience regarding how these immigrants came here. We should not demonize those struggling with this legitimate conflict. This immigration problem can be solved. But it requires Americans to face our reality. And it requires men and women in Congress to forgo their usual political egos and step to the plate, committed to resolving this issue rather than winning points from divided voters. Give a little; get a lot. As long as it is a game focused only on speechmaking and winning, on an all or nothing basis, a bad problem will continue to get immorally worse.
There are wins to be had for all by making an invisible community fully employed in jobs needing to be filled, thereby becoming taxpayers for services received on a non-citizenship status. So far it has been easier to sit back, righteously complain about the problem, and do nothing. It is time to stop the grandiose but ineffective rhetoric, accept responsibility for our Conservative-Independent-Liberal collective failure, apply a Statute of Limitations to this immigration crime such as we use for far more serious infractions, and all move on with our lives. Once upon a time America used to solve problems instead of whine about them. When are we going to solve this one?
© 2014 Randy Bell