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EDITORIAL

Is this another pretend bargain?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 - 12:01 am

Will border security really be gained by path to citizenship?

In Washington, “compromise” usually involves a game of let’s pretend in which conservatives make concessions for bargains they never really get. In budget negotiations, it involves conceding to tax hikes, which usually come immediately, in return for promised spending cuts that are vaguely off in the future and somehow never materialize.

Let’s hope the new immigration reform proposal isn’t the same kind of sham. That would mean conservatives are conceding on a path to citizenship, which will happen a lot more quickly and with many fewer complications than most people suppose, in return for promised border security, which is vaguely off in the future and not likely to happen. That’s what we were treated to last time around in 1986 when 3 million were legalized, and it’s the main reason we have 11 million illegal immigrants now.

That may not seem like such a big deal at the moment, when the ongoing economic slump in this country has slowed illegal immigration from a flood to a trickle. But what about when things pick back up? What would it be like to have the current immigrant population plus 20 or 25 million more? The more outlawed behavior is rewarded, the more of it there will be, unless the laws of human nature have suddenly been suspended.

The current proposal, introduced by a bipartisan group of leading senators, seems to make the path to citizenship long and difficult and expensive enough not to be considered amnesty, so rewards for future illegal immigrants would be too distant to be an incentive. To get on the path, people must register and pay fines and back taxes to win only “probationary legal status.” They have to get in line behind other immigrants already in the system to win permanent status.

But once something starts, the tendency is for it to keep going and for barriers to get weaker rather than stronger. Once legal status is granted – even if it’s called probationary – the reason to stay hidden is gone. All else will follow from that, and the inclination to really do something about the border will drop away.

It’s hard not to be cynical about the proposal, since it is so obviously the result of political considerations. Democrats get an overwhelming majority of Hispanic votes, which they want to keep. Republicans have an anti-Hispanic reputation that they desperately want to discard.

Nowhere in all the debates is any hint that this might be real comprehensive reform, which would include a look not just at illegal immigration but legal immigration. The last major overhaul was in 1965, when the quota system based on national origin was scrapped in favor of reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor. We’re long overdue for a serious study and another overhaul.