Unlike in 2008, immigration hasn’t been much of an issue this election season. In fact, my friend Mark Shea has one of the few blog posts I’ve seen on the subject. In “The Reason I’m Not in a Huge Sweat about Immigrants,” Mark says,
That they [the 12 millions illegal immigrants] failed to fill out paperwork is a nuisance for bureaucrats, but not a big issue for me. It is the Big Laws, not the small ones, that matter.
Whether the effect of having 12 millions illegal immigrants in our country is beneficial or detrimental is a question I’ll leave for those who formulated a more thoughtful opinion that I have. My primary concern about illegal immigration is more basic: It’s about fairness and rewarding individuals for doing the wrong thing while punishing families who are doing what is right.
If Mark is correct about it only being a nuisance for bureaucrats and a matter of “failing to fill out paperwork” then it would indeed be a “small law.” But of course the immigration laws are not merely about documenting who is in the country.
Our current immigration policy is based on the Immigration Act of 1990 which set the annual limit of new immigrants into the U.S. at 700,000 and established family reunification as the main immigration criterion. Under the law, a minimum of 226,000 immigrants are allowed to become permanent residents each year under the family-sponsored preferences. Citizens and permanent residents of the U.S. are allowed to sponsor their adult children, parents, and siblings. However, the wait times for immigrants wanting to join their family are quite long.
According to data obtained from the U.S. Department of State and Department of Homeland Security, the wait time for a U.S. citizen petitioning for a brother or sister from the Philippines exceeds 20 years. A U.S. citizen petitioning for an adult son or daughter to join them can expect to wait 6 to 17 years, depending on the country or origin. Approximately 4 million people are waiting in family immigration backlogs.
Policies that give preferential legal status or citizenship to illegal residents over those who have followed the established legal procedures subverts both the rule of law and the unity of the immediate family. The only way that the issue could be resolved fairly would be to allow all 4 million family members on the current immigration backlog to obtain the same legal status or citizenship that would be offered to current illegal residents. Yet if we were to give amnesty to both the 4 million people on current waiting lists and the 12 million residing here illegally, the total would exceed—in one year—all of the immigrants that were processed through Ellis Island. (In comparison, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 granted amnesty to about 3 million immigrants.) Such a plan is obviously untenable in a country with both high unemployment and a strong social welfare safety net.
The issue is complicated and not amenable to easy solutions. But what can be changed is the way we think about the issue and shape our rhetoric. For too many years the debate has been framed in terms of being “compassionate” toward illegal immigrants or being “respectful” of America’s laws. If that was the true binary choice then, like Mark, I would want to err on the side of compassion. But the problem is not between being compassionate and respecting the rule of law but giving preference to those who break the law and live close to our southern border over those who obey the law and are attempting to join their family members in America.
We certainly aren’t going to solve our country’s immigration problems anytime soon. But what we should and can do is to ensure that our policies are pro-family and instill a respect for the law. And we can’t do that when we treat illegal immigration as if it were merely a small matter of failing to fill out the right paperwork rather than what we are really doing—punishing families who want to be reunited.