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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 9, 2006

COMMENTARY
Our immigration laws need fixing

By Ed Case

America's heritage and strength is grounded firmly in our immigrant tradition. Our own Hawai'i was molded by generations of immigrants; a fifth of us are not American-born the third-highest percentage nationwide.

But immigration has become at best dysfunctional. It's too hard to do legally and too easy to do illegally.

In the complex and long-overdue debate on this subject, these are the principal facts, issues and options.

The basics date to 1790. People born in the United States, or born abroad to American citizens, are automatically citizens. This accounts for 95 percent of all citizens.

The other 5 percent are naturalized and go through a process to become citizens. Naturalization, via permanent residence (green card), is by category and "preference."

Our naturalization goals are: Reunite families (66 percent of admissions), meet workforce needs (16 percent); provide refuge from persecution (8 percent); ensure immigrant diversity (5 percent); and "other purposes" (5 percent).

Major countries of origin are Mexico, China, the Philippines, India and Vietnam. Hawai'i has our nation's highest naturalization rate, mostly from Asia.

We also permit others to enter our country temporarily to work, study or visit. Most are business or pleasure visitors; fewer than 10 percent are students and temporary workers.

Otherwise, it is illegal to enter our country or to stay longer than permitted. Yet that's what millions have done.

Accurate numbers on how many people live in the U.S. illegally are impossible to come by. The best estimate is 10 million to 15 million. We are apprehending and returning more than a million illegal immigrants annually, 98 percent of which are from Mexico. In Hawai'i there are an estimated 2,000 illegal immigrants. However, that estimate is six years old, and that number is significantly higher today.

It is illegal to work in our country unless permitted, and to employ illegal immigrants. Yet many illegal immigrants are working. Employers hire them, either knowingly or because the only pre-employment verification of citizenship required is a Social Security card, forgeries of which are easily available.

The cost of illegal immigration is hotly debated.

Segments of American business especially agriculture, hotel/restaurant and construction benefit from low-wage labor. But illegal immigrants tax education, healthcare, law enforcement and other services for citizens and legal residents. Fifteen-year-old studies estimated $2 billion to $20 billion in net costs annually to government.

And there are heartbreaking real-life consequences as well:

A couple with two young children approached me quietly after a community "talk story" meeting. They had overstayed their visas 15 years ago, looking for a better life. They became contributing community members, had children who are Americans but now were to be deported.

Yes, one could say they took the risk and got caught, but what about their kids?

This is a system sound in principle but broken in practice. There are four major issues presenting various options:

How do we prevent illegal immigration? There are three clear pukas: border enforcement; employment/benefit enforcement; and departure enforcement.

Will we increase inadequate resources to enforce our laws, especially along the U.S.-Mexico border?

To what extent should employers and benefit providers be required to confirm legal status up front?

Should we track not just who comes in but who leaves our country as many other countries do?

What about the illegal immigrants already here? Some want "amnesty," a one-time forgiveness, while others propose legalization with conditions. Others say no special treatment.

And, finally, how do we ensure the humanitarian needs of illegal immigrants and the efforts of our communities of faith, nonprofits and others to minister to them?

Should we institute a formal "guest worker" program under which larger numbers of workers are permitted to enter for longer periods? Should illegal immigrants first depart before seeking legal guest-worker status? May guest workers seek naturalization?

Should we expand legal immigration? If so, in what categories?

In 1986, we enacted "reform" that granted amnesty to 5 million illegal immigrants and promised but didn't deliver border and employment enforcement. Look where it got us.

Last year, we started anew by enacting the "Real ID" law requiring proof of citizenship or legal residence for issuance of drivers' licenses, and the U.S. House passed a bill boosting border enforcement and requiring employer pre-verification.

But Friday, U.S. Senate attempts to pass a package of border employment enforcement, guest workers and a form of earned amnesty failed. The president is focused on guest workers.

With both House and Senate required to agree eventually on a single bill, and the president threatening veto, the outcome is anything but certain.

We must persevere toward lasting reform. As we proceed, I have these guideposts:

Repeating the past won't work; only a comprehensive, integrated solution will hold up. To ignore enforcement invites disrespect for law and is unfair to those waiting patiently for legal entry. Without deterrence of further illegal immigration, unauthorized entries and overstays will only accelerate.

Neither universal amnesty nor universal deportation for current illegal immigrants will work; different rules should apply to different categories of illegal immigrants, ranging from possible earned residence/naturalization for some to return for others.

  • Legal immigration should be accelerated, especially for family reunification.

  • We are already able to expand legal immigration or temporary residence for clearly-demonstrated worker shortages.

  • We should not criminalize humanitarian assistance of illegal immigrants by good-faith providers.

    Above all, we cannot descend into ethnic or social or class division but must stay focused on what's best for our country.

    Immigration can continue to be a hallmark of Hawai'i and America, but only if we reformulate reasonable, enforceable and sustainable policies. This takes acknowledging difficult realities and balancing competing constituencies. If we do, we will be far stronger for it.