Citizen Pain - Fixing the immigration debate

by Peter Skerry and Devin Fernandes 

If I were in their shoes, I’d be doing the same thing—coming across that border and tryingto better things for myself and my family.”These are the words volunteered—almost verbatim, sooner or later—by just about every Border Patrol agent we have interviewed over the past decade. It’s not a sentiment you would hear from other law enforcement officers: Just imagine your neighborhood cop saying, “If I were in that guy’s situation, I’d be dealing drugs, too.” Border Patrol agents detain illegals wherever and whenever they find them, butan awareness of the moral ambiguity of the “crime” they are fighting pervades their efforts.

Such nuance is at odds with the sharp categories drawnin the current immigration debate. To those leading the charge to seal our borders, illegal immigrants are lawbreakerswho should be prosecuted and sent home. These restrictionists see no ambiguity in the situation, even  though our economy depends upon the labor of illegals, and the millions of Americans who hire them are complicit in their offense. Advocates for the undocumented are often equally outraged, because they consider illegals victimswho are exploited by employers and pushed to the margins of society.They hope to help undocumented immigrants by somehow legalizing them. What virtually all parties to this debate share is the notion that illegal immigrants are denizens of some subterranean world.

From The New York Times to George W.Bush, defenders of immigrants depict illegals surviving in the “shadows.” So do border vigilantes like the Minutemen, who fear that those shadows conceal terrorists and malingererssponging off social programs. Even savvy hardliners like Representative James Sensenbrenner, the sponsor of legislation criminalizing illegal aliens as well as those who aid them, rely on the same imagery.“Unless we get a handleon illegal immigration,” Sensenbrenner told Fox News, “we’re going to turn illegal immigrants who can’t get papers or Social Security cards into a permanent underclass.” Of course, as recent protests across the nation demonstrate, illegals are hardly reluctant to come out into the daylight. Yet the universally held—but virtually unquestioned— assumption is that illegal immigrants make up a discrete and problematic group, whereas legal immigrants are a benign or even beneficial presence. But this sharp dichotomy is fundamentally misleading. Were illegals grantedamnesty, they would undeniably be relieved of a burden.

But the benefits for both them and the Americans currentlybothered by their presence would be far less significant than widely assumed. At the same time, the measures intended to give political ballast to amnesty—beefed-up border enforcement and increased visas for legal entry—would either inadequately address or actually exacerbate public anxieties about immigration. That’s because the problems facing us do not stem exclusively from illegal immigration, but from immigration itself.

The complete article from the New Republic as a download

If you wish to share your opinions about this article, please write to