Immigration Solutions

By Marc Seltzer; originally published May 12, 2009, at

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Last month, after President Obama announced the beginning of a discussion on immigration reform, I wrote a blog discussing the fundamental political conflict at the heart of the matter:  Legalization for twelve million or so immigrants, whose status is currently illegal.

The two solutions offered by opposing sides are:  (1) strict enforcement of current law, leading to deportation of the illegal work force and those family members without legal residence; or (2) legal status and a path to citizenship with a fine for breaking the law.

The first option is not realistic because of the human costs, economic disruption and political beliefs of the majority of Americans and their representatives.  Those who see this as a black and white issue, where illegal means “no rights” are missing the historic context of a nation built on immigrants and hard work, not entitlement and status.  It’s not that illegal immigration is right, it’s that this solution is not right.  The nation may or may not be capable of policing its borders, but it is not capable of ten million deportations.

The second option is essentially the same “Amnesty” program that was implemented under President Ronald Reagan, with the addition of a potentially significant fine to punish and discourage the immigration law violations.

There has not been much discussion of the fine or potential restrictions of this type of legalization.  This may be where there is some room for compromise.  There is no reason that the fine could not be substantial, that the path toward citizenship could not be long, or that some immigrants could not be put in legal worker programs, where they would not be entitled to a path to citizenship without further application along with other non-resident applicants.

A stricter, more “punishing,” legalization program would serve to discourage illegal immigration in the future, especially if legal quotas for immigration kept up with the labor needs of U.S. employers and employers who broke the law were sanctioned.

If the second option (legalization) can be achieved politically, then the 12 million people who can take advantage of the program will come out from the shadows of the law and establish legal identities in the American system.  If this option cannot be achieved politically, the status quo may continue for another period.  This option has many negative consequences.   For the illegal residents, they suffer exploitation and lack of legal participation in the society in which they live.  Society loses their number in the census, in some tax collection and public allocation of resources.  Unfair competition with the legal workforce is also a problem.

So far, anti-legalization forces have not shown an interest in creative compromise.  It’s time they did so.  The failure to enact legal reform does not create a better real-world solution.  Helping to create an immigration program for the future that is realistic and firm is the best way to get the legal framework in line with an enforceable legal reality.

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