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Hope may deter illegal immigrants

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POSTED: March 24, 2007 5:15 a.m.
One piece of good news is that tougher enforcement along the Mexico border seems to have slowed illegal immigration.
After putting up better barriers and increasing the number of patrol agents, arrests of illegal immigrants decreased 27 percent in the first four months of fiscal 2007 compared with the first four months of fiscal 2006. Fewer are getting caught because fewer are trying to cross, officials say.
That development should be applauded by all Americans, immigration advocates included. Too often, immigration restrictionists call their political opposites “the open borders crowd” or refer to them as being “in favor” of illegal immigration.
But nobody who is anybody is calling for unrestricted immigration, and as to "favoring" illegal immigration ... well, the notion is nonsense. What sensible immigration proponents really want is to stop future illegal entries, and do something that is both practical and humane about people who are already here illegally.
As for the latter, Ronald Reagan got it right, and he was not afraid to use the A-word. The icon of conservatism signed a bill in 1986 granting “amnesty” to illegal immigrants. Those who had lived in the country for at least five years, learned English, had clean records and paid back taxes plus a fee could become legal residents eligible for citizenship five years later.
The Reaganites knew amnesty for those already here was only half the battle; they realized that they also needed to discourage future illegal entries. They hoped the solution was in the bill's provisions calling for heavy penalties on businesses that hired undocumented workers.
The 1986 amnesty succeeded in that it brought 2.7 million people out of the shadows, giving them the opportunity to participate fully in American life. But 11 million illegal immigrants later, there is no question that the employee sanctions utterly failed.
There are similar proposals for immigration reform today, supported by President Bush, moderate Republicans and most Democrats. Like Reagan, they want to give illegal immigrants already here a path to legal residency — amnesty, even if none dare call it so. And to discourage future entries they want more employer sanctions and tougher enforcement at the border.
Is this a repeat of 1986? Will it turn out that even if the newly legalized immigrants do perfectly well in American life, there will be 20 million more illegal ones to deal with two decades from now?
Sure, stepped-up enforcement will deter some illegal crossings. Sure, employee sanctions will make some people think twice about risking it all to come here for a job that employers might be too afraid to offer them. But the promise of a better life in America will continue to be a powerful draw, legally and otherwise. One possible solution, then, is to make it possible for more immigrants to come legally.
At least one version of the immigration reform bills Washington has been considering does just that, by increasing the number of visas the United States is willing to give people waiting in other countries. If they can hope to come legally, they are less likely to try coming illegally.

Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
 

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