The Death of an Immigration Bill

Note: A version of this column appeared in The Olympian, July 11, 2007.

Dead again.

That’s the status of Senate bill 1639, the 1,000-page rat’s nest that tackled the nightmare called immigration reform. Like Lazarus, this bill was resurrected, only to have a stake driven through its heart.

During debates about the bill, I found myself in a strange camp – with conservative Republicans, who fought it because it would give amnesty to undocumented immigrants if they jump through some hoops and pay some fines and fees. (Much of immigration is about money. He who pays, plays.)

When I lived in Laredo, Texas, in 1988, a student of mine led a group across the border to tour a maquilladora – a manufacturing plant American companies established in Mexico. This one was for Ford Motor, and this student’s father had relocated from Detroit to manage it. The most startling characteristic about this plant was not the 15-year-olds working there or the low wages but the surrounding neighborhood, a collection of houses the employees constructed of plywood from shipping crates sent to the factory. I understood instantly why people risk their lives to cross a border. It’s not hard to feel sympathy for people who just want a better life.

It is hard, though, for me to be sympathetic toward those who break laws, especially when legal immigrants work so hard to enter this country. I could only stand by, hands tied, while my spouse jumped 10 years of hurdles to earn a green card to work in a field that desperately needs his talent. And I can only commiserate with the man at the bus stop who, after 14 years here legally, has still not received his card.

According to an article in a recent issue of Newsweek, “Every year we take in more immigrants than the rest of the world put together.” We already have 43 different visas on the books – 44 if you include the diversity visa, which is given lottery-style each year to 55,000 people eligible to emigrate from countries that have been historically under-represented.

Forget the morality of the issue. Consider the logistics. The proposed Z and guest worker visas, which require short stays and several returns to the home country, couldn’t possibly succeed. Our government recently had to postpone its mandate for American travelers to Mexico and Canada to carry passports because it couldn’t meet the demand of its own ruling. Imagine the paperwork involved in tracking the guesstimated 12 million illegal residents already here, not to mention new migrants seeking these visas.

Now that S-1639 is dead, maybe we can get to the real work of reforming immigration.

First, we could enforce the Immigration and Control Act of 1986, passed when there were only 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. Enforcing that law might uncover more companies like two in Texas, which supplied fake documents for aliens working at an oil-rig manufacturer that received a $73 million federal contract.

Second, we could work with Mexico to undo the damage of NAFTA, restore its economy, fight the flood of immigrants on their southern border, and reign in the drug lords. If you keep citizens happy – and safe – at home, they’ll likely stay there. Then the border-crossing theme park that opened in the state of Hidalgo could truly be for amusement rather than reinforcing a legacy.

Third, we could ensure that the expensive surveillance equipment already placed at the border by companies like Boeing actually works.

And most importantly, we could reduce the hurdles imposed on those trying to migrate here legally.

The US is indeed a nation of immigrants. Here’s to all of us immigrants who obeyed the laws to find our better life.

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