The recent Arizona law that requires local law enforcement officers to crack down on illegal immigrants, despite its flaws, is a natural reaction to Congress’s utter failure to craft a comprehensive national immigration policy. Without federal standards, Arizona lawmakers felt they had no choice but to take matters into their own hands, which they did in a racist and bumbling way.
Rather than condemn Arizona lawmakers, both those who want to crack down on illegal immigration and those who oppose racial profiling should focus their frustration on Congress and the president and push for a national plan.
To be successful — and this is where past efforts have fallen apart — both camps must be willing to compromise. Staunch immigration foes must accept that the U.S. is not going to deport millions of people who entered the country illegally, often decades ago, but have been living and working here without incident. Those who support a lenient approach must accept that the U.S. can’t simply ignore those who cross our borders illegally, even if it means those who are caught will be turned back and that some will die trying to get to America.
Four years ago, President George Bush laid out a realistic middle ground approach on immigration that included stronger border security and a system for immigrants to become U.S. citizens.
“We are a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws,” he said in a May 15, 2006, prime time address to the country. “We’re also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways. These are not contradictory goals. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time.”
He went on to propose that illegal immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States for many years without breaking any other laws should pay taxes and learn English, then be eligible for citizenship.
As for border security, he called for more investment in technology such as infrared cameras and motion sensors and proposed to station 6,000 National Guard troops on the U.S.-Mexican border.
His proposal went nowhere in Congress, where those who favored enforcement only butted heads with those who supported a path to citizenship.
If a Republican president, who had governed a state with a large Hispanic population, was unable to convince a then-Republican controlled Congress to follow his lead, there is little hope for progress now.
Underlying the whole situation is the mostly untold story of the role of immigrants. Legally or illegally, millions of foreigners have taken root here, supplying demands for labor (albeit often at low cost), creating new markets for goods and services, paying taxes and raising families alongside those of us earlier immigrants.
Congress should want to control the borders but also to regularize what has already happened, accepting immigration as a benefit rather than just a liability.