To the degree that one could find in Obama’s remarks even the rough outlines of a plan for comprehensive immigration reform, it was in this section:
First, we know that government has a threshold responsibility to secure the borders and enforce the law. Second, businesses have to be held accountable if they exploit undocumented workers. Third, those who are here illegally have a responsibility as well. They have to admit that they broke the law, pay their taxes, pay a fine, and learn English. And they have to undergo background checks and a lengthy process before they can get in line for legalization.
And fourth, stopping illegal immigration also depends on reforming our outdated system of legal immigration. We should make it easier for the best and the brightest to not only study here, but also to start businesses and create jobs here. In recent years, a full 25 percent of high-tech startups in the U.S. were founded by immigrants, leading to more than 200,000 jobs in America. I’m glad those jobs are here. And I want to see more of them created in this country.
Actually, we can distill it even further. Few people dispute that the feds need to enforce the border; we only argue about how effectively it’s being enforced. Likewise, few would argue that anyone — but it always seems to be “businesses” with our supposedly business-friendly president — should “exploit” anyone else, including illegal immigrants; the human-trafficking bill that was passed and signed into law in Georgia this spring, for example, explicitly extended protections to people unlawfully present in the state. And few believe we shouldn’t allow more of the “best and brightest” enter the country to study, start companies and create jobs here; at issue is whether to let illegal immigrants already here “cut in front of the line,” as Obama put it (Obama’s answer, in spite of himself: yes, through the DREAM Act).
Where the discussion really breaks down is on point No. 3: Obama’s contention that “those who are here illegally have a responsibility as well. They have to admit that they broke the law, pay their taxes, pay a fine, and learn English. And they have to undergo background checks and a lengthy process before they can get in line for legalization.”
And the question is how close that comes to “amnesty.”
What does it mean to “get in line”? Do they have to get behind the people who have been waiting in line and trying to do things the legal way all along? How lengthy is “lengthy”?
And what does “legalization” mean? It is a work visa that runs out at some point, and would such an expiration be enforced any better than it is today? Or would we let the line-jumpers eventually become citizens — citizens whose future votes might be courted by today’s politicians?
There is an answer somewhere between the “deport ‘em all” and “legalize ‘em all” camps. And I think the starting point for it looks something like this:
1. No citizenship for someone illegally present today. We don’t need to further cloud the political process by turning immigration reform into a potential new-voter bonanza for elected officials.
2. Any work permits granted to today’s illegals should be temporary, and they should not last as long as those work permits we grant to newcomers who come here the lawful way. There needs to be a strong incentive for people to come here legally rather than illegally.
3. Any fines we levy on today’s illegals should account for past taxes unpaid and might also be levied in proportion to their future time here (i.e., it would cost more to gain legal status here for five more years than for one more year). Again, the incentives we offer people for coming/staying here illegally, versus going through the lawful process, are of the utmost importance. (If politicians really want to gain support for an immigration deal, they could stipulate that the fine revenues go to paying down the national debt.)
4. The window for accepting the above terms, and any others, should be short and finite. I don’t know what the ideal time would be, but let’s say it’s two years. Come forward and take the deal — legality, but no citizenship, no permanent residency, must pay back taxes/fines, etc. — within two years. Otherwise, you’ll face certain deportation, no mitigating circumstances accepted. If we’re going to offer them a chance to come out of the shadows, as Obama put it, we need to give them every incentive to take it, and quickly. And then comply with the terms of the deal.
In case my frequent references to incentives didn’t make it clear enough: The key here is to discourage future illegal immigration, and end the seemingly perpetual cycle we find ourselves in. We could probably find a way to absorb the current illegal population. But, like so many of the issues we face, we have to ensure that today’s solution doesn’t lead to a bigger problem tomorrow.
– By Kyle Wingfield