Border Skirmishes Not Over Yet


Posted: June 05, 2007

THE BEST WAY to interpret the immigration legislation being debated in the Senate and heartily endorsed by President Bush is to read it as a text illustrating the ambivalence that many Americans have about immigrants.

For example, study after study shows that people accept the benefits of immigration, and yet, they also feel that policing the borders and reducing the number of illegals should be a priority. The overall concept of the bill - providing a path to citizenship for those illegals in the United States who can show they are serious about being productive - is a good one.

It recognizes that it is simply impossible, to say nothing of a bad idea, to try to round up 12 million people and deport them. Many illegal citizens provide key services in the U.S. economy, and to remove them would be counterproductive.

It would also raise moral questions in the cases of immigrants seeking asylum from unstable or threatening places. At the same time, the bill doesn't give illegals a free pass; it sets some hurdles that they must overcome, to show they are serious about being Americans.

Yet, too many of those hurdles in the bill seem too far out of reach for many illegal immigrants.

Those who apply for so-called "Z visa status" will have to pay a $5,000 fine for breaking the immigration laws. While it's a good idea to show illegal immigrants that breaking the law does have consequences, such a high fine will serve only to keep many illegal immigrants hiding, trying to avoid the steep penalty. Why not allow this fine to be paid in stages? Such an agreement could provide a strong ongoing incentive for hard work.

Another seemingly needless hurdle is the so-called "touchback" provision. This requires those who have obtained Z visa status but who want to apply for permanent residence to go back to their country of origin and apply from there.

While it sounds reasonable enough, consider that the bureaucracies of various nations operate with different efficiency. An immigrant who has to go back to El Salvador might have to wait far longer to get back than someone from Colombia. If that person has family that has remained in the United States, the law would inadvertently break up families for long periods of time. Again, this might give an illegal immigrant pause.

Such steep requirements were likely needed to gain the votes of many in Congress who felt they would have a hard time explaining anything other than a "kick them all out" vote to constituents. With these requirements, they most likely are more comfortable going home and telling people that they voted to "get tough" on illegal immigrants. Those constituents should know, however, that at a certain point, hurdles start to be seen as impassable barriers and will simply give illegal immigrants another reason to not come forward.

Establishing standards for citizenship eligibility is one thing; making them them too tough defeats the purpose of coaxing illegal immigrants to partake in the process.

The debate is going to get only uglier in the coming months as the fringe of both sides picks up the rhetoric. That's why it's important that the rest of us take a critical look at what's being proposed, and the effects it will have, and urge those in Congress who seem to want to find a compromise to keep working on a better bill that better serves the principles it lays out.

As it is, the bill is the result of hard-wrought compromise that brought together Democrats and Republicans. We're confident that with more work, this issue can be dealt with as satisfactorily as the limits of a democratic system - or our own ambivalence -will allow. *

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