Tags: Must | Act | Immigration

We Must Act on Immigration

Tuesday, 04 April 2006 12:00 AM

Ed Koch Commentary

Changes in U.S. immigration law are on the way. The debate over what kind of changes should be made is roiling the country with angry disagreements in the media and demonstrations in the street.

Those who believe America has lost control of its borders are frustrated by the lack of a national consensus on what to do about it. There doesn't seem to be a fair and practical way to stem the tide of illegal immigrants now flooding across our borders, primarily the border with Mexico.

Those who oppose President Bush, Senators Specter, McCain and Kennedy, who want to legalize the status of the illegal immigrants already here, are fending off accusations that they're racist, bigoted and hard-hearted.

The Catholic Church led by Cardinal Mahoney of California denounces those who would make it a crime to assist persons illegally crossing the borders of the U.S., as some 850,000 people do every year.

Many of the street demonstrators believe there should be no borders and they have a right, they say, to open borders. Mexico, however, strictly enforces its own southern border.

Supporters of the Senate legislation say they oppose open borders and amnesty, yet by allowing those who have broken our immigration laws to stay, work and ultimately apply for U.S. citizenship - a form of amnesty - they would only encourage new illegal immigrants to enter the country in expectation of a comparable amnesty 20 years hence.

An amnesty is what we provided in 1986 with the passage of Simpson-Rodino, believing we had disposed of the problem. Opponents of open borders believe that allowing unlimited immigration into the United States and providing amnesty to the 11 million illegals already in the country is morally wrong.

They allege that it is simply unfair, since there are about a million legal entries into the United States annually, made up of 750,000 legal immigrants given the right of permanent resident status, the right to work and ultimately to apply for U.S. citizenship, as well as 250,000 refugees unable to live safely in their own countries who are permitted to legally work in the United States.

That total number of immigrants is the result of one of the most compassionate immigration policies of any country in the world. Most Americans believe it would be unfair to give any of these rights to those entering the U.S. illegally ahead of those who remain in their own country, and they should join the queue in their own country to enter the U.S. legally.

When I learned that one of the measures proposed by Congress was to criminalize the presence of an illegal immigrant in the U.S., I was surprised.

I thought it was already a criminal act to be here in violation of the law. Now, I am told it is a civil violation, like a traffic offense. Like most Americans, I have concluded that while I do not want to see people sent to prison for these offenses, I do want them to go home and apply to come here, with their fellow countrymen.

One measure that would help negotiate a lawful return to the United States for those returning to their own countries, would be to provide them with preferences if they have immediate family relatives here who are U.S. citizens, e.g., their children born in the United States before Dec. 31, 2005.

Another measure would be to increase the annual quota for low-skilled workers from the current 10,000 to 100,000.

When I was mayor, I issued three executive orders affecting illegal immigrants. One provided that if an illegal immigrant was the victim of a crime, he or she could report it to the police and not be arrested unless they had committed a crime other than the offense of being in the United States without lawful approval.

Another directive was that the Board of Education would not turn over the names of illegal immigrant children to the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). The third was a similar directive to city hospitals (Health and Hospitals Corporation) not to report to the INS any illegal immigrants seeking and receiving medical treatment at any of our city-operated hospitals. Every mayor succeeding me - David Dinkins, Rudy Giuliani and Mike Bloomberg - reissued those three orders.

Nevertheless, I do not approve of assisting an illegal immigrant to hide from the INS (now reconstituted under the Department of Homeland Security as U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as "ICE") when that agency seeks to enforce the law by detaining them and sending them back to their countries.

If the assistance to illegal immigrants defended by Cardinal Mahoney and church groups is humanitarian in nature - water, food, shelter - no one would quarrel with him. If it is assistance to hide from ICE, then he is simply wrong.

Having tried to lay out my position and philosophy, where do I come out on legalizing the status of 11 million illegals now in the country as the U.S. Senate legislation seeks to do? Recently, I had lunch with a good friend and one of the foremost experts on immigration law. We discussed the issue.

He said that he "had once supported the position of those who said send them back, but had changed his mind, having concluded there is no realistic way to send them back." I agree.

We will not put 11 million people in detention and then transport them back to their countries. It is not doable. Yet I am told that Israel had a similar problem, but obviously not of the same scale, with illegal foreign workers and managed to remove many of them. In some fashion, Israel eliminated the lengthy appeals that limit the immediate impact of a removal program.

Last week, I discussed the issue on my Friday night radio program on Bloomberg Radio, presenting the arguments on both sides. One listener said I was wrong to conclude that it was not possible to send people back and that it was a matter of supply and demand. The illegals are here to get jobs and earn money, and if the jobs were not available, as they would not be if the current law were enforced, the illegals would go home on their own.

Further, enforcing that law, said the caller, was not difficult. The way to do that would be to punish the person who hired an illegal applicant. The punishment should include escalating fines.

The current law since 1986 provides for initial fines of $1,000 and up to $2,500 for a first time offense with escalating penalties for subsequent offenses, including possible criminal charges for employers demonstrating a pattern and practice of knowingly hiring illegals.

The question is, have these penalties been imposed uniformly? I doubt it. Let's try it and even increase the penalties, if necessary. There must be a reliable database for employers to determine who is authorized to work, e.g., the best being a better developed and protected Social Security number, eliminating the multiplicity of documents now allowed and easily falsified.

Many say that the illegals are needed for agricultural, construction and other low paying jobs. If that is the case, can't we create a program which would allow guest workers to sign up in their countries to come here to work for one year and then go home? The contractors who bring guest workers here should be regulated and ensure prevailing wages, residences and health care for the guest workers.

Others say it is truly impossible to address this issue rationally for fear of repercussions at the polls or fear of being damned for committing unconscionable acts. Are these acts taken by a country to protect its borders immoral? I don't think so.

I certainly support building a wall that clearly will help reduce the numbers coming in illegally.

We should examine what Mexico does on its southern border to keep out the millions that live in greater poverty in Central America and long to enter the honey and flesh pots of Mexico. Let's not be afraid to do what is right and in the best interest of the United States.


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Ed Koch Commentary Changes in U.S. immigration law are on the way. The debate over what kind of changes should be made is roiling the country with angry disagreements in the media and demonstrations in the street. Those who believe America has lost control of its...
Tuesday, 04 April 2006 12:00 AM
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