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A common sense compromise on immigration

MCALLEN, TX - JULY 15: Immigrants who have been caught crossing the border illegally are housed inside the McAllen Border Patrol Station in McAllen, Texas.
MCALLEN, TX - JULY 15: Immigrants who have been caught crossing the border illegally are housed inside the McAllen Border Patrol Station in McAllen, Texas.
Photo by Pool/Getty Images

By now it should be clear to everyone that the current immigration system is broken and beyond repair. Illegal immigrants flock across the border with seeming impunity. Businesses depend on the labor of these immigrants, even as many US citizens leave the work force or are forced to work part-time jobs. Even legal immigrants like the Tsarnaev brothers can travel between the United States and terrorist training camps abroad without the knowledge of federal authorities. Perhaps worst of all, at President Obama’s implicit invitation, many unaccompanied immigrant children have made a dangerous journey the southern border to throw themselves on the mercy of the American welfare state. A solution to these problems requires a common sense approach and a bipartisan compromise

Democrats and Republicans disagree on the solutions to these and many other problems faced by Americans. What’s more, the current balance of power in Washington in which Republicans control the House of Representatives and Democrats control the Senate and White House guarantees that neither party can force its own solution on the other. Many conservatives hold out hope for a Republican Senate majority after this year’s elections, but, even with the most optimistic projections, the GOP will not hold a majority large enough to override President Obama’s almost certain veto of a partisan immigration bill. The only viable solution to the immigration problem requires compromise.

To reach a compromise, leaders of both parties must overcome the angry voices of fringe elements of their base. Republican leaders answer the demagogues of the right who attack any attempt at immigration reform as “amnesty.” Democratic leaders must work around those on the left, including the president, who see immigration as a wedge issue with which to paint Republicans as racists and who would prefer to have open borders.

A wise man once said that a true compromise means that everyone is equally unhappy. In a compromise, both sides have to give up something. The thing that conservatives must give up is the notion that a border security bill must come before any other aspect of immigration reform.

There are two reasons that this is true. First, immigrant labor is needed by the businesses that make up a large part of the Republican coalition. Cutting off the supply of immigrant labor will only succeed in pushing these businesses toward the Democrats in spite of the left’s anti-business policies. Second, it is mathematically impossible for the GOP to pass a standalone border security bill with Democrats in control of the Senate and Barack Obama in the White House.

For their part, the Democrats must agree to enforcement triggers and border security provisions that cannot be reversed or ignored by the president or future Congresses. No one trusts President Obama to do the right thing on immigration. No one trusts Congress not to defund border security in the future.

Any immigration bill must include border security measures that would prevent a future influx of illegal aliens. In the age of terrorism, this is a national security issue rather than an economic one. Fencing is needed along much of the southern border along with increased numbers of Border Patrol agents. A better system of tracking legal immigrants who overstay their visas is also desperately needed. Like a standalone border bill, a bill that focuses solely on bringing current illegals into the system could not pass the current Congress.

Both parties must bend on how to address the problem of illegal immigrants already in the United States. Hard-line conservatives insist on deportation while hard-line liberals want a quick path to citizenship. The path to a compromise lies in the middle.

There are many reasons that deportation won’t happen. The American people are sharply divided with many polls showing a majority in opposition to deportation. Many illegal immigrants who came here as children don’t even speak the language of their native countries. Many adult illegal aliens have been here for years or decades and have established homes and businesses. In many cases, they tried to immigrate legally, but would have had to wait for years or decades. Public opinion will not tolerate families being split up as illegals are deported and legal resident aliens remain.

Public opinion also does not favor amnesty and granting citizenship to illegals. Most Americans agree that illegal immigrants did break our laws and must pay their debt to society. Although most Americans support a path or legalization or citizenship, such support is often contingent on meeting requirements such as passing a background check, paying back taxes and fines, and showing English proficiency.

The answer lies in the middle path of granting a measure of legalization to illegal aliens that is short of citizenship. This does not mean amnesty, which is a pardon or forgiveness for a crime. Under a path to legalization, which is supported by a majority of Americans as well as a majority of Republicans, illegal aliens would have to prove residency and show a clear criminal history, pay fines, and be subject to long waiting period before having any chance at citizenship.

This middle path would ensure that the punishment would fit the crime. Entering the United States illegally is a crime, but it is not a felony or a misdemeanor. According to the US code, it is an infraction akin to a traffic ticket and is punishable by a fine of not more than $250. Deportation or jail time is an excessive punishment for the crime of illegal immigration as currently defined by US law. This is especially true in light of the fact that illegal immigration has, for decades, been conducted with the tacit approval of both the US government and the American people.

The punishment for current illegal aliens must be severe enough to discourage future illegal immigration, but fair enough that illegals will choose to take part in the process rather than remain in the underground economy. There should be a grace period after which penalties for applying for legal status are more severe.

Conservatives must realize that if the current crop of illegal aliens are denied a fair chance at the American dream, their children will be birthright citizens who will bear a strong grudge against the Republican Party. If it is to remain relevant, the GOP cannot continue to write off large majorities of minority voters.

Once there is agreement on the major points of securing the border and how to handle illegal immigrants already in the US, agreement on other details should be easier to obtain. The law should be amended to elevate the crime of crossing the border illegally to felony status with automatic deportation for future illegal aliens.

In return for a secure border, legal immigration should be increased dramatically. Migrant workers should be encouraged to work in jobs that Americans won’t take as part of a guest worker program. Graduates of American colleges and universities with degrees in science, technology, engineering and math should automatically receive a visa with their diploma. Currently, many US educated students are forced to go abroad after they graduate where they take jobs that directly compete with American companies. It should be easier, faster and safer for an honest, hardworking immigrant to enter the US legally than illegally.

A strong majority of Americans believe that immigration reform is desperately needed. In the current climate of Washington, a bipartisan compromise is the only plan that has any chance of becoming law. A compromise bill that includes enhanced border security, a tough but fair approach to current illegal immigrants and an increase in future legal immigration should be able to win support of majorities of both parties and houses of Congress, while proving to the American people that the federal government is not totally and irretrievably broken.