Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Immigrant Justice

James Skillen


May 1, 2006

A cartoon by Barrie Maguire in The Washington Post tells it all. With one hand, an American citizen is holding tightly and pulling up on the arm of a Latino gardener; with the other hand, the American is pushing down hard on the Latino's head.

Those opposing forces now characterize American immigration policy. Businesses that want cheap labor combined with inadequately guarded borders say, "Come, we want you." But laws and attitudes that deny recognition and equitable treatment to illegal immigrants say, "You're not welcome; stay away or go home." This makes no sense and Congress knows it. Now, thanks to bold and massive demonstrations by millions of Hispanics and supporters, the country may be waking up to the injustice and irrationality of these policies.

What should Congress and the president do?

First, they need to revise the immigration laws to make them consistent across the board for future immigrants. I have no recommendation for the number, but whether the U.S. should allow 500,000 or three million foreigners to enter legally each year, the law should enumerate the number of skilled and unskilled workers, family members, and other eligible applicants who can be welcomed and treated justly in this country. Moreover, the immigration laws should be clear about the terms of entry, including work requirements, sponsorships, length of stay, path to citizenship, penalties for entering illegally or violating the laws, and so forth.

Second, Congress and the president, working closely with state governments, need to make sure that all other laws, including enforcement and hiring regulations for businesses, fully support the immigration laws. It is unjust to put most or all of the penalty for law breaking on illegal or noncompliant immigrants and few or none on the businesses who hire them. It makes no sense for the federal government to pass laws that neither it nor the states can or will enforce. It is dishonoring and counterproductive for a government to establish immigration laws but not to supply sufficient means to process people who wish to immigrate legally or sufficient means to deny entry to those who try to immigrate illegally. George Will is correct in saying that current "conditions along [our southern] border mock the rule of law" (Washington Post, 3/30/06).

Yet all of these irrational oppositions exist. It's the Maguire cartoon again and again. Eugene Robinson contends that our policies have actually invited illegal immigration: "we left the Mexican border essentially open, gave employers the luxury of no-questions-asked hiring without any credible threat of sanctions, and failed to make clear who was supposed to enforce the immigration laws and how. That adds up to an invitation" (Washington Post, 4/14/06).

Finally, Congress and the president need to rectify the injustice done to those—probably 11 to 12 million people—who are now living and working in the U.S. illegally. Putting them on a clear path to citizenship seems the only proper course. If our inconsistent laws and failure to enforce them have added up to an invitation, then the party that bears the greatest responsibility for reform is the U.S. government. The other option of trying to round up and deport all illegals would cost so much and lead to so much turmoil and further injustice that Congress won't choose it.

The power of interest-group politics that now dominates Congress may make it impossible to enact the coherent, rational, and just reforms of immigration policy that are needed now. But "compromise" legislation that tries to put a fig leaf over the current unjust mess will only add to the mistreatment of immigrants and further erode respect for government. Now is the time for action of the kind that is both comprehensive and just.

—James W. Skillen,
    Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”