An Emma Lazarus Approach to Immigration Reform (reprise)

Those of you who keep up with the Spirited Reasoner will recall the following message, which seems especially timely after the heartbreaking events along our nation’s border over the past few weeks. The message began by asking a question:

“Hey, Spirited Reasoner. If President Trump’s wall is so stupid, and if you’re so smart, tell us how you’d solve the illegal immigration crisis?”

To which I responded, “Okay. Here goes.”

  1. I would start by renaming the individuals who are seeking to come to the United States. Instead of using the pejorative label “illegal immigrants,” I would call them “seekers of American freedom and opportunity.”
  2. I would then massively increase the resource levels at official Ports of Entry, especially those along our southern border. By “resource levels” I mean immigration officials, social workers, and physical facilities to provide food, clothing, shelter, and medical services.
  3. I would also increase substantially, but temporarily (and probably to be greatly decreased over time, for reasons described below) the number of immigration officials at other spots along the border, especially those where migrants have typically sought to sneak into the United States. Freedom seekers encountered at those spots would not be deported, but would be redirected to high-quality holding facilities at the official Ports of Entry. Here, administrators would screen each freedom seeker to weed out convicted felons or known terrorists. (Once clearly identified, convicted felons and known terrorists would not be allowed entry.)
  4. Now for the key: After being screened to assure an absence of prior felony conduct, all individuals entering at the proper Ports of Entry will be processed using a new label: the default designation of “provisional seeker of American freedom and opportunity.” They will be given identification cards and will be assigned to community service facilities located in all 50 states. If an authorized charity wishes to sponsor an entire family unit, then that unit will be free to go to wherever the charity has a licensed operating facility. To become licensed, the charity will need to warrant (i. e. guarantee) the lawful conduct of each sponsored individual for at least five years, provide adults with community service employment, and provide all necessary food, clothing, shelter, transportation (to and from employment sites), and medical insurance. If a family unit cannot be matched to a sponsor, then it will be assigned to a government-managed community service project, organized along the lines of the WPA, CCC, and similar New Deal operations. Examples: litter collection, servicing public parks, cleaning public facilities, etc.
  5. Children of freedom seekers will be assigned to nearby local schools, with educational reimbursement being made to the school system by the sponsoring charity and/or the federal government. A sponsoring charity could also opt to provide its own brand of licensed private education, which might often be the preference for faith-based sponsors.
  6. Payment for community service would be at minimum wage rates; however, a substantial portion of each paycheck would be held back until the end of the five-year provisional period. The purpose here is to require freedom seekers to prove their commitment to freedom and the American way of life before being granted full permanent residence status. At the end of five years, they would then be handed their nest egg of accrued savings–one that could be used to help with the down payment on living quarters.
  7. But, during the five-year provisional period, a freedom seeker may be deported upon conviction of a felony or for the commission of certain repeated misdemeanors. Whether the entire family unit would need to be deported in such cases would be a decision by a judge made in the best interests of all family members (including the needs of children and the wishes of other adults in the family unit).
  8. Upon completion of the five-year provisional period, the freedom seeker would be granted permanent resident status, free to begin the process of seeking U. S. citizenship according to processes currently in place for green card residents.
  9. Anyone found in the United States without necessary proof of citizenship would not be deported, but would instead be sent to an official Port of Entry, where the five-year processing would begin. (Note how this would eliminate the advantage currently gained by sneaking across the border. Freedom seekers would gain a time advantage by starting, right up front, at a legal Port of Entry.)

Main Advantages:

  1. Immigrants would be spread across the United States, rather than straining the resources of just a few southwestern states.
  2. Our nation’s approach would shift from one of suspicion to that of compassion. We would, in short, be readopting the approach of Emma Lazarus on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free …”
  3. Legal process would become the preferred method of migrants seeking to enter the United States.
  4. Our immigration process would more closely match the highly successful Ellis Island method, wherein huge numbers of seekers of opportunity came to our shores during the 19th and 20th centuries.
  5. Community service projects (e. g. litter collection) would improve the living environment for all of us.
  6. Research has demonstrated that immigrants, once established in the United States, become productive citizens who pay taxes and support economic growth.
  7. For those of us from Judeo-Christian backgrounds, we would more closely fulfill the commandment found in Deuteronomy 10:19: “And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.” (There are many other similar verses to be found in the Bible.)

Main Disadvantages:

  1. Critics would argue that we would be “opening the floodgates” to massive immigration. My response would be that the floodgates have long been open, and that the Spirited Reasoner proposal would provide added resources to respond in an enlightened fashion. Instead of spending billions of dollars on a wall that will almost certainly be evaded by way of tunnels and balloons, we would spend money in a manner designed to encourage legal immigration. We would see decrease in crime, because desperate families would no longer be sneaking across borders, forced to steal food in order to survive.
  2. Critics would argue that violent criminals and terrorists would use this opportunity to invade the United States. My response would be that we would be increasing the number of screeners. And by allowing our default to be “freedom seeker” rather than “illegal alien,” we could focus law enforcement attention on the few convicted felons or known terrorists, rather than forcing law enforcement to view every entering family as a criminal.
  3. Critics would argue that this approach would be too costly. My response would be that these same critics were quick to favor a $5 billion wall, even though tunnels are already being discovered, ladders are already being used, and it is only a matter of time before balloons and drones will be used to bring “illegal aliens” into our country. Why not use this money to create a substantial incentive for freedom seekers to choose a legitimate route to entry? The Spirited Reasoner approach will shift costs away from law enforcement and over to social services. Then, over time, these freedom seekers will pay for themselves through community service and the eventual payment of taxes and the generation of economic output.