Fortunately for America, the Republican Party and the conservative movement, there is a solid, red-blooded American, good old torch-and-pitchfork no-nonsense way of overhauling America’s immigration laws: enact a statute of limitations for the statutory crime of illegal immigration.
Such a move would resolve this issue in a comprehensive way, including opening a way to earn citizenship for fundamentally law abiding illegal immigrants, while making it easier to expel the bad apples.
Statutes of limitations are common. They apply to almost all crimes short of the most heinous, such as rape or murder. American law is rich with similar provisions.
In Arizona, a hotbed of anti-illegal sentiment, the statute of limitations for fraud (which illegal immigration most resembles) is three years. It would be preposterous for even the most virulent anti-immigration groups to try to assert that violating immigration statutes is as heinous as rape or murder.
Proposing and passing a statute of limitations is clearly the American way for Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, and other conservatives to resolve this issue.
The question then shifts to one of not whether, but what length is sensibly operative. Three years? Five? Seven? That’s a healthy argument to have. The argument so far has not been healthy. Immigration always has been controversial. Even the great Ben Franklin betrayed a blind spot on this issue when writing, “Why should the Palatine Boors [i.e. the Germans] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”
Franklin’s hostility did not prevail — and the Germans turned into right good Americans. America has attracted into its society about 12 million of the hardest working, most generally law-abiding, religiously serious, family minded, patriotic people. These immigrants represent a social, economic, cultural and spiritual windfall to an America in need of moral revitalization.
The Hispanics — legal and illegal — are, as soon as we learn to treat them with the dignity that they deserve, an El Dorado for the conservative movement. A strong, generous, immigration policy unequivocally is in America’s — as well as the GOP’s and the conservative movement’s — best interests. Human dignity is always good policy and good politics.
How can this be explained to the public? No need. The American public already gets it. Gallup reports that two-thirds of Americans view immigration as a “good thing.” The problem is more of explaining this to our elected officials.
Anti-immigrant forces (some of whom use arguments against Hispanics identical to those Franklin used against the Germans) pretend to a certain moral legitimacy. Their pretense resides in their position that those who came to work and live in America outside the legal framework fundamentally are lawbreakers who should never be given the means to earn citizenship. This claim of “amnesty” has stymied many Republicans who are afraid of being hammered as soft on criminals.
Demanding strict — relentless — enforcement of our immigration laws is a bit like rooting for the 19-year persecution by Inspector Javert of Jean Valjean for having stolen a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s seven starving children in “Les Misérables.” Those who call for relentless prosecution might well reflect on Javert’s ultimate fate — suicide — when consumed by cognitive dissonance produced by recognizing the sterling character that Valjean had developed.
By enacting a statute of limitations for illegal immigration, Republicans could force passage in the Senate and a signature by the president. There is much more than the resolution of a merely political dilemma at stake.
Yes, a statute of limitations will provide new legitimacy for the GOP among Latinos. Of much greater moral gravity is this: Such a change has the power to unleash the imprisoned economic and social lightning of millions of otherwise law-abiding people.
Common law, based on common sense, provides a pathway to a clean resolution of an otherwise intractable problem. Speaker Boehner: enact a statute of limitations. Such a resolution, as Javert was incapable of finding, is the way out of political suicide.
A statute of limitations will serve America’s national interests, as well as the GOP’s. Not incidentally it will create a humanitarian breakthrough of historic proportions. The statute of limitations meets the Statue of Liberty. That’s not amnesty. That’s the American way.
Ralph Benko is an author and regular columnist for Forbes.com. He serves as senior adviser, economics, for American Principles in Action and was a junior official in the Reagan White House.