Immigration Reform: Let's Start by Rewarding Those Who Play by the Rules

This is a parable about the promise and the paralysis of America. I was dining at the Rough Riders Hotel in Medora last week with Sheila Schafer. Her favorite waiter was serving us, a handsome and exceptionally friendly and well-spoken young man from Argentina. I'll call him Frank. He is here on a work visa, but he will soon have to return to Argentina to remain in compliance with American immigration law. His fiancé—I'll call her Lucy—is an energetic and graceful young Argentinian woman with a perfect spirit of hospitality. She, too, works in the hotel restaurant. They are a photogenic and charming couple just starting their life together.

They love America. They are ideal candidates for the American Dream. They would like to stay here permanently. "Lucy" and "Frank" would be ideal American citizens—hard working, self-reliant, law abiding, well informed, and more enamored with American ideals than many of us.

They will almost certainly not get to spend their lives in the United States, and it is extremely unlikely that they will become American citizens. The Theodore Roosevelt Medora Foundation employs young people from several dozen countries. Most of them spend a couple of seasons here and then return to their native lands with stories to tell about the American West, and money in their pockets. A few wish to stay and cast their lot with us. It is almost impossible. The legal wranglings that would be necessary to try to help them achieve their American dream would cost tens of thousands of dollars, and there is no guarantee of success.

It took me about twenty minutes to write the three paragraphs you have just read. If it is true that approximately 10,000 illegal immigrants enter the United States every day, then 139 individuals have sneaked across our borders while I tapped out these words, and more than 500 entered the U.S. illegally while Mrs. Schafer and I dined on lobster bisque and lamb chops.

This is not good, not right, and decidedly not just.

Every nation has a natural right to set its own conditions of citizenship. This is fundamental to the idea of national sovereignty. Each nation develops a social contract: you are a citizen of X-Land under the following conditions; these are your rights as a citizen, and these are your responsibilities. Nobody requires you to show up on our shores, but if you do, you have to meet the conditions we have agreed upon or, with all due respect, you are not welcome here. And, by the way, you have to stand in line, for there are hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people around the world who want to live and work in the United States, and become naturalized citizens, and they are up ahead of you. Why should foreigners who respect the law and play by the rules wait—some for ten years or more, some forever—while those who begin their American journey by violating the law and cheating the system are rewarded?

I know it's a little more complicated than that. Extreme poverty makes people do desperate, sometimes heroic things. People flee oppression when they see no alternative. Certain American businesses—particularly labor-intensive agribusiness, the building trades, landscape services, and the hospitality industry—benefit from our porous southern border and are not eager for tighter immigration control. The staggering differential in prosperity and material blessings between the United States and its southern neighbors makes illegal immigration inevitable and irresistible. There are jobs that most homegrown Americans prefer not to do. It's a cruel paradox: the law of supply and demand lures illegals here—to the advantage of the American economy—and then we get to blame and exploit the most vulnerable human beings in our midst.

At some point the Congress of the United States is going to pass immigration reform. We've gotten close a couple of times, but the die-hards in the House of Representative are so insistent on the moral dimension (see above) that they forget that this is also an urgent practical issue that must be resolved. The McCain-Kennedy bill of 2005 was defeated by furious blow-back from those who are determined to destroy any plan that would permit the 11-20 million illegals in the country to be given legal status as permanent guest workers or de facto American citizens, even if they paid a $1500 fine (try enforcing that). Plans to round up and deport illegal immigrants may sound appealing to those who cannot transcend their sense of moral outrage, but that would be ruinously expensive, would almost certainly fail to achieve its ends, and would turn the United States into a police state. It also violates the basic humanity both of those who would be deported, and of those who would deport them.

I think we all know, deep below the rhetoric of outrage, that at some point we are indeed going to have to grandfather the millions of illegal immigrants in, whether we like it or not, while at the same time attempting to create a clean slate of better, more enforceable immigration protocols.

If a wall along our southern border is the only practical way to prevent people from Central America from infiltrating the United States illegally, I say build it, though the idea makes me feel a little icky for two reasons. First, it doesn't seem like a very attractive symbol of America. To my mind, it feels like something that belongs in the category of Guantanamo and the appalling Fourth Amendment violations of the NSA. It makes the whole country a gated community. Second, it feels like an act of desperation and moral feebleness, like Hadrian's Wall in northern England, up at the far extreme of the Roman Empire; or the fascistic-feeling walls that now slither through the no man's land between Israeli settlements and what's left of the Palestinian Homeland.

So the world's greatest "nation of immigrants" slams shut the door.

We would probably need to add a few new words to Emma Lazarus' magnificent sonnet, "The New Colossus" (1883), that graces the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor: "DON'T give me your tired, your poor, DON'T SEND
your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, YOU TAKE CARE OF the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. DON'T send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: 
I lift AND GLEEFULLY EXTINGUISH my lamp beside the golden door."

Still, if a majority of Americans insist upon a wall along the Texas, California, New Mexico, and Arizona borders, if that is the deal-breaking condition for our finding it in our hearts to let most of the current illegals remain in the land they sought out to fulfill their dreams, then I say let's break ground.

But here is what I would like to insist upon when comprehensive immigration reform comes. We need to find a way to fast track an equal number (in other words millions) of people like Frank and Lucy, who have been standing in line for a very long time, who yearn to breathe our free, fabulous air, who yearn to contribute their talents to the economy and the culture and civility and creativity of America. Those who have played by the rules need to be celebrated and embraced, not punished, with a national apology for the years we have kept them waiting while we engage in pointless demagoguery about issues that in many respects are beyond human control.

We should give special honors to those who play by the rules.