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Wednesday, 12 April 2006 00:00

Forging a wise immigration bill

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Amnesty? In the immigration controversy that is dividing Congress and the nation, this has become the most misused term in the politician’s vernacular. It’s being used as wedge by those who favor a policy that is heavy on relentless enforcement and deportation. This policy, instead of celebrating the spirit of hard work that is the backbone of this country’s success, would have us rely instead on the twin weaknesses of insecurity and insularity. That’s not the America I want for our future.

12 million strong

It’s really past time that this country met its immigration problems head on. There are 12 million illegal immigrants currently living in this country, and in North Carolina and other states they are a key component of our economy. We’ve been ignoring the problem, letting the immigrants come and fill the low-paying jobs while not forcing employers or the immigrants to take appropriate steps.

During the 1990s, North Carolina’s Hispanic population rose at a faster rate than in any state in the country. The 394 percent increase in the Hispanic population in the state represents more than 300,000 new residents, according to statistics kept by the North Carolina Rural Center. Almost half of those new residents settled in counties like ours, those considered rural. North Carolina currently has the eighth largest illegal alien population in the country.

Unfortunately, as often happens, this debate is being thrust upon us in an election year, a time when Republicans are suddenly losing in the polls on their strong issues such as the war in Iraq and terrorism. Democrats, sensing a weakness, want a bill that will impose their ideals but one that will also lock in the Hispanic vote for a couple of generations.

Out of this seemingly hopeless situation, a bipartisan, reasonable and tough immigration bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. It contained proposals that many, me included, think are appropriate, just, and keeping with the ideals of this country.

First off is the amnesty issue. Yeah, this proposal offered a way for many illegal immigrants to become legal workers and even citizens. But amnesty means one is a criminal today, and tomorrow that person is free and clear. This bill proposes something far short of outright amnesty. Here’s what illegals would have to do to meet the citizenship criteria of the Judiciary Committee’s proposal: prove they’ve been here for 11 years, prove they have a job, pay a fine of $2,000 and any back taxes owed, become proficient in English, and pass a background check. Do all of this and you are then eligible to become a citizen. There’s no guarantee.

Sen. Arlen Specter, the GOP chair of the Judiciary Committee, calls it “earned citizenship.”

The proposal also allows for 400,000 guest workers to enter the country each year, nearly doubles the number of border patrol agents, sets up a system for deporting illegals faster, and imposes tougher punishment on employers for defy the law. Those here less than two years would have to go back to the border and re-enter as one of those guest workers. In total, it was a reasonable bill that would likely pass if this weren’t an election year.

What is the alternative passed by the House in December? Make felons of all illegal immigrants, and make it a criminal offense for anyone to help them. There’s also the genius idea of building a 1,900-mile fence — in some places an actual fence, in others a system of electronic sensors — across the Southern border. As we bus those folks back, we could watch our economy go up in flames, watch families be torn apart and witness small family businesses go belly up. Oh yeah, and don’t forget about the decrease in collected taxes that would force all of us who were still here to pay more. It’s a ridiculous proposal that is unenforceable.

Here’s the truth: every Hispanic I know in the mountains works for some small business or owns their own. I’ve not met a single able-bodied adult Hispanic male, not one, who did not have a job or was not trying to obtain documentation so he could work. Not one. Sure, they are out there, but there are not many of them. I know farmers, contractors, landscapers and restaurant owners, and more who would be scrambling to find replacements if the House proposal was passed.

If we passed a smart bill and reduced the number of illegals, then we would also more than likely raise the pay these immigrants and low-income Americans now make. Stop the flow of illegals, who because of their status can’t make ask any questions when they are taken advantage of by unscrupulous employers, and we slowly will kill off the indentured class that keeps salaries depressed.

A long history

I have to confess my allegiances. My wife teaches English as a Second Language to mostly Hispanics, and she’s been doing it on and off since before we were married 17 years ago. Many acquaintances and friends are immigrants, but we seldom ask their legal status.

Taken technically, I suspect she could be guilty of some criminal offense if the House bill passed. I feel sure she has helped immigrants who weren’t here legally. So have a lot of preachers and priests, social workers, church volunteers, nurses and doctors, and others.

Perhaps living here in the mountains puts me out of touch with some of the realities facing this country. I know that in the post-9/11 world we have to be much more vigilant about who lives and works in this country. Any nation must have tough laws to deal with immigration. But there is a huge difference between those who want to live, work and assimilate and those who want to do us harm or take advantage of the social safety net that provides services for the poor and the elderly. As for the immigration proposals now on the table, most of them fall into two camps: one side favors deportation and puts most of its emphasis on stronger border patrols, while the others make room for guest workers and offers a path to legal employment status and eventual citizenship.

This I know: I don’t want anything to do with a law that would make immediate criminals out of the 12 million or so immigrants who are now in this country illegally. That is simply a ridiculous notion, as is the idea of building a 1,900-mile wall. In times past when such choices have been presented, President George Bush has too often fallen way right and sided with the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. On this issue Bush has promoted a relatively smart immigration policy that includes a guest worker program. Now it’s time for him to step up and lead the country through this minefield of confusing and dangerous rhetoric.

(Scott McLeod can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .)

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