The law won

Legislators who seek to overhaul U.S. immigration policy should look to the lessons of history

In these first few weeks of his second term, President Barack Obama is poised to make a terrible mistake: flawed immigration reform. The groundwork for such a reform has been laid by eight senators — four Republicans and four Democrats — and even the president has jumped aboard. The goal: an overhaul of our current immigration system. To this end, the president announced three main areas of focus: improving the current legal immigration process, stricter enforcement of current immigration laws and establishing a “path to citizenship.”

It is hard to imagine anyone taking much issue with the first two goals. Legal immigrants should have the clearest channels possible when making the decision to come to the United States, and enforcement of current laws is something states like Alabama and Arizona would certainly be excited to see. The path to citizenship, however, is another game altogether. In fact, if history is any indication, the third goal works almost in direct opposition to the first two.

Perhaps the most famous historical example is Ronald Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which stipulated that borders should be tightened while simultaneously allowing illegal immigrants to apply for permanent residency. In addition, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, enacted in 1996 under Bill Clinton, tried to do much the same by increasing enforcement of immigration policy, attempting to streamline the legal immigration policy and allowing undocumented immigrants without criminal records to apply for permanent residence.

Despite these good intentions, illegal immigration continued to rise in both cases. Why? The answer is tied intrinsically to the fact that, both in 1986 and 10 years later, the “path to citizenship” focus was carried out, while the increase or enforcement of border security and immigration laws was largely ineffective. Illegal immigrants only had to enter U.S. borders and wait for the next round of citizenship to be handed to them. In short, the new bills created greater incentives for undocumented immigrants to enter the country while failing to increase the security that would provide the counterweight for such incentives.

What lessons can Obama learn from the past? It is simple — do not serve the dessert with the broccoli, because when dessert is on the table, it is all anyone will see. Instead of proposing more paths to citizenship, the president needs to take a look at what actions states are taking that are already demonstrating results.

Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 was not popular with the political left, but, according to statistics from the Department of Homeland Security, the bill’s passing led to 100,000 to 200,000 self-deportations in 2010, after the law took effect. The same is true in Alabama, where House Bill 56 — a bill seen by some as even stricter than Arizona’s — forced thousands to leave the state.

Both bills have been heavily criticized — even demonized — by the left. Liberal critics point to the 13 percent of Latino students who dropped out of school after the new bill required schools to check immigration status during enrollment. They bemoan the circumstances of those who can no longer receive food stamps because they are in the country illegally. They even call such bills a “mistake,” a source of “widespread damage.” In addition, both bills are clearly at a disadvantage in the media because there is nothing about them that gives off a ‘feel-good’ vibe, and the image of illegal families fleeing the terrifying state are all too easy to picture. It is worth noting, then, that this is not the whole story. In Arizona, illegal immigrants — who the Department of Homeland Security estimates make up about 7 percent of the state’s adult population — commit a disproportionately large percentage of crime. Moreover, 14 percent of prisoners guilty of murder or manslaughter, and 24 percent of those imprisoned on drug charges, are undocumented immigrants. Despite the negative images liberals like to paint of these “draconian” laws, HB 56 and SB 1070 are doing the job the government has repeatedly proven it is unwilling or unable to do.

Obama and the nation as a whole are in for another set of heated debates. As the Senate moves forward on immigration reform, it is imperative that the lawmakers –— and the citizens who elected them — learn the lessons that history, and current events, have to teach. As mentioned before, the left is interested in the dessert: citizenship for undocumented immigrants, an end to discriminatory practices and a bright future for all. The right, however, wants the ever-marginalized broccoli: border security and stricter adherence to current immigration laws. Arizona and Alabama have shown us that broccoli can work, and history has demonstrated just how ineffective paths to citizenship can be. If the president is going to tackle this issue, he needs to examine the evidence and break from the flawed decisions of his predecessors.

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