April 8, 2010
by William D. Siegel
One of the critical lessons of the past year-plus of the Obamacare fiasco is that it is often more practical and reasonable to tackle such issues piecemeal. Another area where such a "noncomprehensive" approach could be helpful is illegal immigration; especially before President Obama commences a long struggle for comprehensive reform this year.
Widely differing views have held reform legislation and effective border security hostage in recent years while the problems continue to grow unattended. Nonetheless, whether engaged now or deferred until effective border security has been secured, one simple idea can accomplish important, initial steps before any sweeping reform is undertaken and, in turn, can help reduce the remaining roadblocks toward any such reform.
The arguments from the right are generally concerned with the rule of law, transparency and an aversion to amnesty; maintaining that, while immigration is a valued part of our national will, illegal immigration should be treated according to the laws that exist. "Illegals" have failed to demonstrate the respect for our laws, which should be a fundamental element of citizenship. Without compliance, illegals should not receive the entitlements available to citizens, including those to be distributed under Obamacare. Further, given Obamacare's addition of 30 million people to the medical system, the country can ill afford an additional estimated 12 million illegals.
Those from the left, on the other hand, are principally concerned with compassion for the "undocumented," willing to forgo the laws as they exist in favor of rewarding the undocumented for the hardship he has already endured. (Note is made that these are, for many, rhetorical perspectives; the underlying narrative being a battle over whether or not to allow large populations of illegal/undocumented [I/U] persons into the citizenry in order to enhance the Democratic voter base).
These arguments address I/Us who are already in the country. No one has directly requested any form of amnesty for future illegal entrants. Meanwhile, as real action is stalemated, the numbers and costs associated with the problem grow.
The "noncomprehensive" near-term approach proactively establishes a defined class of I/Us and separates it from all others (including all future I/Us) by forcing I/Us to make a choice to come forward first before they know their ultimate legislative disposition. In exchange for exposing themselves to a registration process, they are granted immunity from prosecution and deportation for their illegal entry. All other status questions - including any future benefits or penalties to be granted, such as requirements for citizenship, taxation, health care, employment rights, etc. - are left for future congressional determination, just as exists today.
A period is to be chosen, for instance six months, in which notice to register is given. If one does so register truthfully, he can then live "in full light" without fear of consequence for his illegal entry. The immunity, of course, is limited to illegal entry, not for other illegal acts. By coming forth, these I/Us create a newly defined and limited class. One way, perhaps, to identify this class might be to utilize the tamper-proof ID card currently being discussed. And given the effort afforded the 2010 census, there should be no aversion to requiring I/Us to go through a serious registration process.
Further, for I/Us who choose not to register, this approach requires deportation without interference. Congress should make clear its intent that failure to register supersedes any defense against deportation.
The consequences of this approach are numerous. First, much is to be gained from knowing the size of this class of registered I/Us. Many numbers have circulated, from 12 million to 30 million and more without any grasp of real verifiable facts. Since the I/Us themselves decide whether or not to participate, the class might wind up with 3 million registrants or 20 million or more. Size is significant; what might be sensible for a group of one size might be irrational for another.
Second, registration will elicit other critical information, such as medical status, other family members seeking to enter, employer and tax information, disclosure of method of illegal entry, demographics and so forth. In order for any future benefits, obligations and penalties to be responsibly structured for this class, significant information is essential. This plan allows such information to be gathered and studied as a base for any final bipartisan legislation.
"Amnesty" has had different meanings in this context. To some, it means granting anything short of deportation. To others, it has referred to the granting of some pathway to citizenship or other benefits thought not to have been properly earned. A third benefit is that by defining one group of I/Us, amnesty can be refused all others; something that goes a long way to satisfying the right without first determining the ultimate outcome for those who show good faith by registering. For the left, compassion for those who have failed to cooperate when given a second chance is certainly less deserved. Placing more responsibility on the I/Us to determine their own outcome should significantly ease the road to reasonable and realistic compromise post-registration.
Finally, the approach should serve as a significant deterrent for future illegal entry as the promise of any reward would be substantially removed. There should also be unanimity for tough action to be taken against all I/Us who are not registered. Such I/U would have either declined registration or entered following the close of the registration period. Deportation and strict enforcement is freed from being held hostage by the amnesty-compassion conflict such that all efforts can be unleashed for single-purpose border security.
If the goal is to resolve the tension between compassion and adherence to our laws, this plan goes a long way while additionally putting a cap on the problem and educating ourselves thoroughly about the population to be addressed. If the goal is either to fight for an inflexible standard against pure amnesty on the one hand or to allow endless illegal immigration to fortify a Democratic voting base for the future on the other, ultimate resolution will be left to the time when one side or the other can ultimately dominate the process. The president and Congress talk the language of the former. How will they walk?
William D. Siegel is a trustee of Hudson Institute
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