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Monthly Column: Discussion on Immigration Begins

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By the time you read this, a group of United States Senators will likely have introduced the first significant proposal on immigration reform in more than 20 years. While it is far too early to comment on its content --- the group has been fairly secretive as to details --- the simple fact that such a high profile group will be offering a proposal is noteworthy. And it offers a good opportunity to talk, generally about immigration.

Real discussion on immigration in Washington is rare. Every now and then someone -- usually a politician involved in a close election -- would either call for blanket amnesty or implore us to "just build the darn fence." But that is political rhetoric, not a discussion. Indeed, since I arrived in Washington two years ago, most folks have been afraid to even mention immigration.

For various reasons, that has changed. I think for the better. And we are now having fact-based debates about how to handle all aspects of our immigration system. And while it is impossible to say if any final decisions will be made or any new laws passed, I think it is worth examining some of the basic principles that are being discussed:

Ensuring the security of our borders. Obviously any discussion of immigration must, by definition, start with border security. After all, if the border isn't secure, then there really isn't a policy on immigration: we would have what we have now, which is essentially an open door policy willing to accept anyone willing to break the law and enter the country illegally. Clearly, that has to change. And as we look at border security, we have to accept the fact that the "border" is more than just a line between Texas and Mexico. Almost half --- half --- of people currently here illegally did not enter the country illegally. They came here legally from countries all over the world, usually with a visa, and just stayed. Put another way, you could "just build the darn fence" a thousand miles long and 100 feet high and it would still only solve half of our current illegal immigration problem.

And border security is such a critical part of a sound immigration policy that it needs to come first. Some folks have suggested that a secure border be a "trigger" that must be met before other reforms are enacted. I think that makes a great deal of sense.

Expanding legal immigration. America has always needed, and continues to need good, legal, immigrant workers. Once we accept this, I think it is possible to talk about one of the biggest failings in our current immigration system: it is far too hard for productive people to come here legally. Our inability to get legal workers is hurting our farmers in South Carolina, and is also hampering our tourism industry as well. We could use all the scientists and engineers we can get, yet we often send the best ones away after they complete their education here. In our area, foreign-born physicians provide a great deal of our health care, yet we discourage more doctors from coming here, increasing both wait times and costs.

We need to find a way to encourage people who want to be productive members of society to come here. Any sensible immigration reform proposal should do just that.

Dealing with people who came here knowingly and illegally. If the last 30 years has taught us anything about dealing with illegal immigrants, it is that it is simply not possible to deport 12 million people. Some folks will yell and scream that we should -- and that that should be the end of the discussion -- but the truth of the matter is that we are not going to do that. But if we can find a way to handle those people in a manner that is best for all Americans -- citizens, illegals, folks who are waiting legally in line to become citizens -- it seems that that might be a good result. And in doing so we need to realize that not all illegal immigrants are the same. I think there is something fundamentally different between someone who crossed the border illegally as a 35-year old, has three DUIs, and is collecting welfare using a false identification -- and a 35-year-old who came here as a 10-month old, has a family and a full-time job. Treating those two people differently might make sense.

Some people don't miss any opportunity to derisively claim that any immigration reform is some sort of "amnesty." I would suggest that amnesty is exactly what we have had for the past few decades, and that enacting some sort of reform that would meet the three principles I've mentioned is far superior to what we have today.

But as usual in Washington, the devil is in the details. We should know a great deal more in the coming weeks. However, I am encouraged that we are at least having an adult conversation about an issue that is so important to the nation, and to South Carolina.


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