Lady liberty on a bench with hand held out

Congress has recessed for the summer, but the country’s immigration crisis will still be around when legislators come back to work. How should they address it? A good start would be to break the issue into its component parts: national security, the social principles underlying our objective, and how to handle the 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here.

hen the prospect of comprehensive immigration reform arose in the Senate in June, the country geared up for a “great debate.” Would America continue to welcome the world’s “poor and huddled masses?” Or should we become the “Harvard of the world,” as some suggested? How would the country deal with homeland security while accommodating the need for skilled, overseas professionals? And most difficult, how would we treat the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already settled here?

That debate never happened. For better or for worse, the bill collapsed with barely a whimper after a procedural vote on the Senate floor. In the weeks preceding the bill’s demise, opponents attacked “amnesty,” recriminations swirled around “guest worker programs” and “point systems,” while talk-radio hosts called for an immigration policy based entirely upon dual 30-foot border fences separated by a “kill zone.”

“My brain hurts from the dissonance of so much shouting,” sighs Demetrios Papademetriou, the founder and president of the Migration Policy Institute. “It’s not that they tried to do too much; it’s that they tried with such passion and anger to accomplish goals that were simply not clear to anyone.”

Therein lies the problem.

Stating our objectives

Papademetriou argues that the failure of the immigration bill was one of both design and debate (see PT Q&A, page 10). “No one took the time to explain what the tradeoffs were and why the two sides were willing to give so much in order to obtain what they thought was critically important to their own side,” he says. “They left us all guessing as to what it was they were trying to accomplish.”

In the absence of a thorough explanation of the bill’s objectives, the public was left to sort through a grab bag of individual tactics included in the text that—in the absence of a reasonable discussion about the bill’s goals—seemed largely arbitrary. Nearly everyone took issue with something in the bill, and confidence in the federal government’s capacity to act plummeted.

“I think people would respond very favorably if Congress split the issue into three parts by dealing first with border security, then with the 12-22 million illegal immigrants who are already here, then by reforming our legal immigration system so it makes more sense,” explains Louis Barletta, Mayor of Hazleton, PA. “They need to explain things piece-by-piece like this, because what they’ve been doing doesn’t make sense to people and it creates intense emotions.”

Barletta would know about the intense emotions surrounding the debate. He has come under fire from all sides—including the ACLU and U.S. Chamber of Commerce—for his town’s passage of an “Illegal Immigrant Relief Act Ordinance” that targeted businesses and landlords who employed or rented to illegal immigrants. The act was struck down in federal court with a 206-page opinion, but is awaiting appeal in the Third District.

Papademetriou comes at the issue of immigration from a wholly different perspective. But when it comes to the structure of a new debate, he and Barletta are in almost perfect agreement with one another.

“At the end of the day, you have to have a bill that says, “American interests first. American values first. American principles first.” And it has to make sense to the average person. It has to be explained.”

Breaking down the problem

For many opponents, the Senate’s latest attempt at comprehensive immigration reform simply tried to roll too many major issues into one package. Increasing border security—an issue roundly agreed upon by legislators on both sides of the immigration issue—died because of legislators’ distaste for other provisions in the bill. A more effective way to start a future debate on the subject may be what Barletta suggested: breaking the bill up into its component parts and debating the actual goals and tactics of each.

Taking this approach, border security would represent the low hanging fruit, an issue where the principles—namely national security—were evident and the debate could focus on the technicalities and details. But if protecting the borders and stopping the flow of illegal immigrants is an easy debate, the flipside would be discussing what to do with the 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here.

Handling the 12 million

Hazleton City Council President Joseph Yannuzzi’s characterization of this issue hardly represents the reactionary, anti-immigrant brush that has tarnished the town in so many articles and blogs. “There are different ways of addressing the problem,” he says. “We need to have a strong, legitimate debate on the issue that will eventually produce a reasonable compromise. Maybe it has to do with longevity. Maybe if you’ve been here for many years and can prove it, you could be treated differently than someone who just came two or three years ago. We’re not simply going to pick 12 million people up and send them home.”

Barletta’s plan would focus on whittling down the numbers through established, practical means before negotiating any type of grand compromise. “First, we need to secure the border to stop the hemorrhaging. Second, we need to stage a serious, committed crackdown on businesses who are hiring illegal aliens. It’s not that difficult, and as the illicit work opportunities dry up, there will be less incentive for illegal aliens to stay.”

Barletta says he understands that measures like these are not a panacea for the country’s immigration woes, but he believes that for an effective debate to take place in the future, it’s imperative that the country reduce the amount of illegal residents to a manageable number. “Once you get it down to a point where it’s not such a heavy burden on states and municipalities, I think it will calm the country enough that we can come up with a fair compromise that makes sense.”

Barletta and others hardly represent the last word on the subject. Nevertheless, elected officials in Washington would be well served to listen to what they’re saying. Right or wrong, at least they’re offering a straightforward discussion. That, in itself, is more than the Beltway has had to offer.