Thursday, July 17, 2014

Membership had its privileges

Groucho Marx resigned his membership in the Friar’s club, sending a wire that said: “I don’t want to belong to a club that would have me as a member.” On the other end of the spectrum American Express for years marketed their cards (which all carry hefty annual fees) with the tagline “membership has its privileges.” It was quite successful, getting millions of people to part with hundreds of dollars a year in order to get a piece of plastic that enables them spend even more money. In both of these instances there is a criteria, whether it be high or low, to participate or belong. U.S. immigration policy establishes the standards for entry to the country – and there’s millions who don’t follow it. Even for those who do work within the system, it is a hotly debated procedure with some 50,000 Central American youth flooding the southern U.S. border in recent weeks.

The current influx of unaccompanied, undocumented minors is putting a strain on the system. It puts into question the mythologized phrase “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”  Poet Emma Lazarus wrote that in her sonnet to help raise money for the pedestal to the Statue of Liberty, a gift from the people of France. It was never U.S. policy though the ethos of the quote speaks to American folklore – we’re a country of immigrants, a mixing pot, a place where all are welcome.

Like most folklore – it’s just not completely accurate. Throughout American History immigration has been a hotbed issue. The 1790 Act established the first rules: free white persons of good character. Various rules and definitions refined the Act and in 1921 the Emergency Quota Act passed nearly unanimously and “restricted the number of immigrants admitted from any country annually to 3% of the number of residents from that same country living in the United States as of the U.S. Census of 1910.” Then in 1965 the Immigration and Naturalization Act passed which was  “a preference system that focused on immigrants' skills and family relationships with citizens or U.S. residents. Numerical restrictions on visas were set.”

George H.W. Bush (41) signed the Immigration Act of 1990 that raised the numbers and relaxed the reasons people could immigrate, increasing the immigrants by more than 40%. President Clinton revised the policy, reducing immigration by 800,000.  President George W. Bush (43) revised the Clinton procedures, allowing a wider range of people to qualify.
The current issue is related to people who come to the U.S. outside of the legal channels. They’re undocumented or illegal – depending on your perspective. They’re actually both, but labeling people isn’t helpful at finding a solution. Estimates range from 11 to 30 million for people who are in the U.S. without a legal status.

Allowing the Government to determine who can and who cannot enter its borders is ripe for discrimination and corruption. There are generations of examples supporting that. Being a free and open country that allows anybody who wants to show up to show up is nice in concept, but not practical. Neither is sending back people who are here. Rewarding law breakers isn’t helpful either. Sending people back to harms way isn’t consistent with U.S. morality either. Clearly the system is broken.

There’s no easy solutions. Minds that are much brighter than me have proposed solutions that set people who are here on a path to legalization. The challenge with that is that since 1986 Congress has passed seven amnesties – and still people enter illegally.

Figuring out how to stem the ability to enter the country in an undocumented way has to be priority one. If a faucet is broken and water is spewing forth, the first thing to remedy is closing the water line before determining if a new faucet is needed, there’s a break in the main, etc. Building a wall to enclose the country is naïve and impractical, as is posting National Guardsmen every few feet around every possible entrance to the country. Individuals attempted to enter outside of the system must be turned away on a go-forward basis, and their attempt noted so that if they try to enter the legal system, there’s an additional consequence for the failed effort. It has to be a fast and immediate process. Due process, something that is at the core of who America is should kick in for people who have respected the system.

When “new” undocumented individuals have slimmed, then the existing system of legalizing immigrants must be updated. Children from broken families, children escaping various horrors, other people needed to be safe from persecution – must all go into the system and be processed in a fast and fair way. The idea that immigration takes years and years is bizarre.

An expanded and efficient immigration process leaves tens of millions who are long-established and not legal. Fines and a new type of exempted visa just for their circumstance would close that gap and be a way to fund the updated system and processes.

Coming to America has its privileges and its responsibilities. We must adapt to allow for both. 

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