Monday, August 9, 2010


I’m fascinated by words—how we use them, how we misuse them, and what they sometimes reveal about our own prejudices. I’m especially fascinated by the way terms with largely positive connotations can devolve into vitriol-inspiring buzzwords. I even use a few of these in my header—tolerance, diversity, and compassion—in a counter-intuitive attempt to make my site more provocative.

Well, guess what? I believe in amnesty too. Not unequivocally, of course, but there are times when it's the appropriate thing to do. And yet, when amnesty is brought up in the context of immigration, certain people (you know who you are) react like the plan is to open the borders and empty the jails, flooding the streets with murderers and terrorists who—as if it isn’t bad enough already—don’t even speak English!

The thing is, not all forms of amnesty are alike. Take the cleverly-titled Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. Under the DREAM Act, an alien who entered the U.S. before age 16, has been in the country for at least five years, has graduated high school, and meets the vaguely-defined “good moral character” requirement, would be able to obtain conditional permanent residency. Six years later, if they’ve spent at least two years in college or the U.S. military, they could apply for a green card.

That’s a slam dunk, right? A path to legal status for aliens who were brought into the country as children, have spent a significant part of their lives in America, and are educated and (otherwise) law-abiding. If we agree on nothing else as a society, can we at least agree that this is the right thing to do?

No, of course not. Here's Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX):
The DREAM Act represents a dual assault on law-abiding, taxpaying American citizens and legal immigrants.
You know, conservatives often become defensive about being seen as heartless. “We don’t hate poor people,” they say, “we believe the best thing for poor people is an economy that rewards hard work and ingenuity—entitlement programs, on the other hand, serve to perpetuate poverty by discouraging those things.”

They could certainly do a better job of selling it, but I think that makes a lot of sense. In fact, most of the seemingly heartless things conservatives do can be supported on similar grounds. Taxes shouldn’t be disproportionately high on the rich because the rich stimulate the economy and provide jobs for the not-so-rich. A market with minimal regulation is good for consumers because it keeps prices low, and good for businesses because it encourages innovation. We shouldn’t overdo it with the foreign aid because it doesn't encourage long-term stability. Et cetera.

Opposition to the DREAM Act, however, is just plain heartless.[1]

Think about what has to be done to avoid breaking a given law. Murder? Don’t kill anyone without a good reason. Seems manageable enough. Arson? Don’t intentionally set a building on fire. Hard to imagine a problem there, either. How about, say, insider trading? Wikipedia says you'd have to avoid making trades "based on material non-public information in violation of some duty of trust." A little tougher, perhaps, but still totally doable.

Now, what would it take for an alien eligible under the DREAM Act to avoid breaking the law? To begin with, a time machine (and not the kind that only goes forward). Upon arrival in 1975-2005, the alien, who at this point would be somewhere between ages 0 and 15, would have to either convince his or her parents (or whoever) to stay in Mexico (or wherever) instead of relocating to the United States, or stay behind alone.

Of course, I probably could’ve stopped at “time machine.” Realistically, all the alien can do is try to minimize the consequences of the violations that have already occurred.[2] That means returning to Mexico (or wherever) upon turning 18 and applying to enter the country the right way, like any other law-abiding immigrant. Nevermind that most of the people we're talking about are more familiar with life in the United States than Mexico (or wherever)—they’ll have plenty of time to get assimilated while they wait.[3] Processing times depend on what type of visa (if any) a particular alien is eligible to file for, but most can expect it to take several years. For some visa categories, the government is just now processing applications that were filed in 1992.

And that’s if they leave the country right away. One year of unlawful presence prohibits an alien from applying for a visa for ten years. The clock starts at age 18, so if they’re still here on their 19th birthday they might as well leave for good.[4] Would that make everybody happy? To get rid of all those (otherwise) law-abiding, English-speaking college students that are such a drain on the economy? I guess we have to—anything short of that would be amnesty, and conservatives absolutely hate amnesty.[5]

This article, after taking a few shots at those of us who feel empathy for “law breakers,” at least agrees that they should have an opportunity to obtain citizenship—but only after re-paying all the money the government has spent on them (because they weren't responsible for being brought to America, but somehow are responsible for the fact that our government loves to pay for stuff). Whatever. I’m more interested in some of the comments:
No amnesty for law breakers OR THEIR KIDS.
NOT our fault the parents broke our laws for them.
Illegal means "broke the law" and you want to not just ignore and give them amnesty but reward people for coming to the US illegally?
What punishment they suffer for violating the law? We're giving them citizenship and we're going to force the schools and or military to pay forit, yeah that's some punishment, NOT.
My God. What I wouldn’t give to deport these people instead.

1. Or, in the case of some congressional Democrats, part of an infantile strategy to pass comprehensive immigration reform or nothing at all. Actually, I think that qualifies as heartless too.
2. This is not, by any means, an exhaustive review of all the alternatives—and their various requirements—available under the immigration laws, in part because I’m hardly an expert, and in part because, trust me, you wouldn’t want to read it if it was exhaustive. The point is, while some aliens who would be eligible under the DREAM Act may have other feasible paths to legal residency, the vast majority do not.
3. Take language, for example. Contrary to popular belief, non-anglophones who come to the U.S. do learn English, and the more time they spend in America, the less likely they are to retain their proficiency in Spanish (or whatever).
4. Because I’m sure every unauthorized alien child is fully aware of the severe consequences of violating one of these arbitrary rules.
5. To be fair, the DREAM Act does have some bi-partisan support. The House version has five Republican co-sponsors, almost half of whom represent districts that aren't in South Florida. Following Mel Martinez's resignation, the bill's bipartisan support in the Senate starts and ends with Indiana's Richard Lugar, who once met Ashley Judd.

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