Today’s immigration debate reminds me of old Dr. Arbuthnot’s observation that “all political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.” In the quest to play partisan games with immigration, both parties may get caught up in an unmanageable policy crisis of their own making.
Fixing our “broken immigration system through comprehensive reform” has become a predictable series of discredited concepts, strategic falsehoods and empty promises designed to appeal to narrow interests, agreeable ethnic blocs or illegal immigrants themselves. Notice that the terminology is always changing: yesterday’s “illegal aliens” were “undocumented immigrants” and now are called “dreamers.” (I thought we were all dreamers.) We hear claims of a labor shortage with millions unemployed. The president is simultaneously the “deporter-in-chief” (claiming to be tough on illegal immigration) while abandoning routine overstay enforcement.
Let’s be honest. A true immigration overhaul would make our immigration flow workable, manageable, affordable, moral and responsive to the national interest. It would promote respect for the law and deter illegal immigration. True reform would prevent a recurrence of today’s problems tomorrow, but the parties need the statesmanship — the kind provided by the late Democratic Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas and her immigration commission — to ensure the tough decisions needed to get it done.
Now we read of a plan to make things worse: A proposal to create a statute of limitations on illegal immigration — a rolling amnesty to keep up with the projected flow of illegal entrants and visa overstays.
The proposal has the advantage of simplicity. The executive branch has effectively lost the management of immigration. And this is a simple, if dismal, effort to normalize mass illegality. Clearly it is an accommodation for permanent ongoing illegal immigration — and a dandy strategy to further incentivize this costly behavior while letting lawbreakers and their exploiters off the hook. Why should we expect intending immigrants to conform to our laws?
The concept is neither new nor imaginative. Existing immigration law — which is civil, not criminal in nature — has a “registry date” that does something similar. The date, set now at 1972, allows an alien who can show continuous residence since then with good moral character and respect for the law to get Green Card status.
The registry date began as a practical consideration relating to valid evidence of identity and available documents dating from the early 20th century. But it is not intended as a rolling amnesty and has rarely been updated.
A few major immigration plans in the past 20 years have proposed moving that date up, but efforts to create a rolling registry date have been rebuffed as nothing more than rolling amnesty.
Breaking our immigration laws is serious business and should be treated as such. Unlike a statute of limitations in a criminal context, where evidentiary issues surrounding proof at a moment in time are in play, illegal immigration involves breaking more than one law. The initial act of illegal entry or violating the terms of a temporary visa is only the first offense.
To successfully remain in the country, aliens entering or remaining here illegally must regularly violate numerous other civil and criminal laws. For example, federal laws explicitly prohibit unauthorized aliens from working. Because many rely on fraudulent documents or identity theft to gain employment, there will also be a range of crimes associated with misrepresentation. Both the use of fraudulent documents and identity theft are serious felonies — the injury to victims can be significant.
Also, labor displacement from illegal immigration costs more than $100 billion a year for federal, state and local taxpayers.
Invoking a rolling statute of limitations on illegal immigration would be nothing more than a continuing amnesty program and an open invitation for millions more to violate immigration laws. Deterrence — what little remains — is disastrously undermined.
The Obama administration is already exercising overly broad and unmanageable power not to enforce laws against illegally resident aliens except those who have been convicted of violent felonies or who are deemed a security risk. Today’s rubber-stamping of hundreds of thousands of deferred action applications confirms that a rolling statute of limitations would leave our immigration control apparatus in fragments.
Has it come to that? If we no longer have enough self-respect to demand that future immigrants respect our borders and laws, why should they?
Dan Stein is president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.