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Immigration: what's the next step
Published October 3, 2003

This country is facing an immigration crisis, a crisis that is no less critical for being largely unnoticed. The United States is a nation built on immigration, from the first settlers who came to these shores to the millions who arrived on Ellis Island, to the many who still arrive on a daily basis seeking opportunity. Unfortunately, many come here illegally. Others--a very small few--come here with the intent to do harm, taking advantage of our open society to hide among the masses. Closing our borders is not a solution, in my opinion. Itís neither fair, nor workable, and the long-term impact on this country would surely be terrible. But what can we do?

Most immigrants, legal or illegal, come to the US to find a better life and new opportunity, possibly to earn enough money to support the family they have often left behind. Many of them come from the poorest countries of the world, especially from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia. They have little to offer but cheap labor, which is what they end up doing. The first-world, educated immigrant has much more to offer on a purely economic scale, but there are conversely fewer of these people who make it to our shores. After all, thereís opportunity to be had in Britain and Germany and Japan as well. No one worries about a sudden flood of illegal Spainiards hitting our shores; for better or worse, there are many fewer of them than are allowed to enter. This is not the case for the poorest countries of the world.

Illegal immigrants are often used for backbreaking labor and demeaning servitude in this country. Though this treatment is illegal, it continues so long as immigrants are willing to so enslave themselves for a desperate chance to be smuggled into this country. Weíve all seen on the news how dangerous this business is. Criminal organizations, often with links to drugs, force the immigrants into thousands of dollars of debt to transport them in secret across the border. Once they are across, the immigrants must work at wages far below the official minimum to try and pay off this debt. It may be years before they see any money for themselves. Those who try to escape are often beaten or physically threatened. Sometimes they are shot.

Itís hard for Americans to accept that this sort of thing happens here, but it is a sad truth. Our law enforcement personell struggle with the problem because no one will testify to being an illegal immigrant. To do so would mean deportation and a sure end to any hope of that mythical big break that draws them to this country. Some do get a break and forge successful lives in the US, but most will be forced to continue laboring in inhuman conditions for years until they return home.

This country cannot support everyone, nor can we just open our borders to anyone who wants to come to the US. We would be awash in immigrants, without the ability to absorb them into our culture or our economy. On the other hand, this is not a problem that is going to go away; in fact, itís likely to get worse. The economy in other countries is in much worse shape than our own, and the United States is still seen as the land of opportunity. In the future, we will certainly face resentment and jealousy as well, as our standard of living continues to vastly outpace the rest of the world.

There are solutions. We must treat people who come to this country with respect and as much compassion as we can. This means granting them quick hearings on their status instead of letting them languish in prison limbo for months on end. It means making a bigger, better effort to crack down on businesses who exploit immigrants. It also means offering legal opportinuties to replace the illegal ones we eliminate--and please note this wonít take jobs from citizens, because citizens arenít working these jobs now. Much of the produce we buy in our supermarkets is farmed by illegal labor. Legalizing this trade might actually produce more jobs for citizens!

The other way to deal with the problem is to make more of an effort to lift up the standard of living in the poorest nations in the world. One way to do this is to allow their agricultural industries to compete on a more even footing with our own; that means knocking down subsidies and tariffs that make it impossible for foreign goods to compete in Europe, Japan and the US. We must stop looking at trade as a zero-sum game. What benefits the rest of the world will benefit us as well. The world markets are too tightly connected for us to ever separate ourselves from them again; to do so in limited markets serves no purpose other than hurting the poorest people in the world. Faced with the choice of starving at home or coming here illegally, which option do you think theyíll choose?