3/29 – AJC – Federal inaction on immigration lets issue fester | Jay Bookman

Federal inaction on immigration lets issue fester | Jay Bookman.

Georgia legislators sponsoring anti-immigrant bills say they have been forced to act by frustration with the federal government, which they believe has been unwilling to address illegal immigration issues.

Unfortunately, those legislators have a point, at least about the federal government’s failure to act. In fact, they have every right to be frustrated, even if the solutions they propose to fill the void left by federal inaction are unworkable.

Thanks to a combination of cowardice and political opportunism, Congress has indeed abdicated its duty to deal with tough immigration issues. The few steps it has taken in recent years — such as efforts to tighten border security — have been little more than useless if expensive window dressing.

Certainly, our border with Mexico needs to be tightened as much as possible. In practical terms, however, a boundary more than 2,000 miles long through mainly undeveloped areas can never be made secure against people sufficiently motivated to cross it. That’s a fact.

It’s also a fact that at least 10 million illegal immigrants already live here, and at this point, most have every intention of staying. According to the 2010 Census, roughly 850,000 Hispanics live in Georgia, and by some estimates as many as half may be here illegally.

So what do we do about them?

That’s the question that elected officials at the federal level refuse to address. That’s the vacuum that state legislators such as Rep. Matt Ramsey, R-Peachtree City, and Sen. Jack Murphy, R-Cumming, claim to be trying to fill. And it is really the crux of the whole illegal immigration debate. With the economy in the tank and the flow of illegal immigrants greatly reduced, the real issue is how to deal with those already here.

There are two basic options: Either make those people go back where they came from, or they stay. Ramsey, Murphy and other conservative legislators prefer that they go back where they came from, and are trying to pass laws so punitive that they will leave on their own. (The option of tracking down, arresting and removing 10 million people, using law enforcement and the judicial system to sift the illegal from the legal, is understood by almost everybody to be hopeless.)

Personally, I have no faith that a policy of discouragement can work. Illegal immigrants have already proved themselves willing to endure great risk, sacrifice and hard work.

No matter how difficult we make things, no matter how inhumane or punitive we make our laws, most illegal immigrants are going to conclude that things are better for them and their children here than they would be back home. And if you think about it from their point of view, they’re right.

Changing that calculation would be very, very difficult.

The alternative, then, is to acknowledge the continuing presence of illegal immigrants while providing an avenue for them to leave the shadows and join the mainstream. That’s a step that only Congress can take — a step that it has so far refused to take, and that it shows no signs of taking in the foreseeable future.

Back in the ’80s, President Ronald Reagan supported legalization, explaining in a 1984 presidential debate that “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and lived here, even though sometime back they may have entered illegally.” Thanks to his backing, Congress agreed.

A few years ago, President George W. Bush tried to convince members of his party to follow Reagan’s lead, but the effort failed. President Barack Obama has also expressed support for such a change, but with chances of passage almost non-existent, he has expended no political capital on its behalf.

As a result, we’re stuck with a choice between bad solutions and no solutions at all.

– Jay Bookman

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