For years, the issue of illegal immigration was greeted largely with indifference by politicians and the news media. In fairly short order, however, it has become a red-hot topic that is debated with a frenzy bordering on hysteria.
I was never comfortable with illegal immigration being regarded with indifference, as it largely has been since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 was passed. I never bought into the naive assumption, often expressed by comfortable middle- and upper class yuppies, that illegal immigrants "only take jobs that Americans don't want."
Illegal immigrants, many of whom labor for oppressively low pay under miserable working conditions, have driven down wages and marginalized job prospects for millions of low- and moderate-income American workers who are here legally. And U.S. taxpayers have footed an increasingly large bill for education and healthcare for illegal immigrants.
Nevertheless, I'm also uncomfortable with today's near-hysterical and often mean-spirited movement to drive every illegal immigrant from the United States, erect a 700-mile fence on the U.S.-Mexico border and demonize those who come here with the sole aim of bettering their lives.
America needs to take a sane, sensible middle ground on the issue of immigration reform.
We need to regain control of our borders and stanch what has been an excessive flow of illegal immigration. But we also should grant amnesty to a sizable portion of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the country. Those who have been here for a substantial period of time, responsibly have held down jobs and have been law-abiding residents should have a shot at amnesty and, eventually, citizenship.
Attempting to locate, arrest and deport 11 million illegal aliens - or even half or a third of that number - would be an expensive, incredibly time-consuming and probably impossible task. An unbridled deportation program would create a widespread labor shortage for businesses such as restaurants, construction firms and hotels and motels. That would hurt both those businesses and consumers.
Those who oppose amnesty say we would be pardoning lawbreakers. But U.S. presidents have pardoned many American citizens who have been guilty of far worse offenses than illegally crossing a border in a desperate quest for a minimum-wage job.
Going forward, we need to do a much better job of enforcing immigration laws in the workplace so that we don't continue to have a steady flow of newly arrived illegal immigrants. That lack of enforcement represents the biggest failure of the 1986 reform law.
Therefore, we need to:
¢ Develop a tamper-proof identification system by which job applicants would provide proof that they are here legally.
¢ Increase the number of federal immigration personnel focused on workplace enforcement.
¢ Levy stiff civil fines and criminal penalties against employers who hire illegal immigrants - with the severity of the punishment increasing with the severity of the violation.
If workplace enforcement were successful, the word would quickly spread to Mexico and other nations that are major sources of illegal immigration. The numbers crossing our borders illegally would drop significantly.
Illegal immigration has its pluses and minuses. Anyone who says it's all good or all bad has their eyes closed.
On the plus side, it has lowered operating costs for many businesses and reduced consumers' costs for many purchases. But it also has made it more difficult for many low- and moderate-income American workers with limited job skills to find work, earn a decent wage and avoid exploitation by shady employers.
Border security must be strengthened. But please, let's not go to the absurd extreme of building an ugly $2 billion fence that not only would be a visual and environmental blight but also would send a cold, insensitive message that America doesn't welcome people from other nations.
America, a nation of immigrants, wasn't meant to be a gated community.
Let's be reasoned, practical and humane in our approach to immigration reform - rather than neglectful and indifferent, as we were in past years, or semi-hysterical and excessively harsh, as growing numbers of Americans suddenly seem to be.