Currently between 10 and 20 million (or more?) individuals who have entered the US without benefit of visa or passport- that is, illegal immigrants- live in this country. Some have been here for 2 decades- others are recent arrivals. Many, probably most, work, illegally, often doing menial jobs difficult to fill with reliable American workers. Many have families, with their children in public schools. Araction of illegal immigrants pay taxes. Many use available social services such as schools, and often charity care at hospitals. Many are assisted by voluntary organizations such as church outreach groups. The largest number originate from Mexico or other central American countries, although there are certainly large numbers of illegal Chinese  immigrants in cities such as New York. It has been estimated that 1/3 of current illegal immigrants actually came to the US on legitimate visas, and have simply stayed.

Our nation wrestled with this problem some years ago, and declared an amnesty for several million illegals, who could then become citizens if desired. Some become citizens by virtue of voluntary service in the armed forces. Currently we are involved in a national debate over whether to deport the illegal immigrants, offer them some sort of program leading to citizenship, or declare outright amnesty. While the arguments have been heated, the potential ramifications of the effect on voting by Hispanics who are current, and future citizens, mutes the debate, and. there clearly is no consensus on the best approach. We should keep in mind that the US currently accepts 400,000-1,000,000 legal immigrants each year, a number that is greater than the the total legal immigrants allowed in all other countries combined. Also to be considered is the issue of continued illegal immigration. Probably there is something closer to consensus on this issue, that it should be prevented, so that another 10 million illegal immigrants do not arrive. However this question hinges on whether it is possible to seal our southern, and other, border(s).

The issue touches on many complicated social, economic, and ethical questions. Is it good to have millions of illegal immigrants working in this country when millions of native born people are unemployed?  Although the answer to that question seems to be a “no”, there is the clear fact that the illegals are often willing to do work at a low wage that American workers will not readily accept. And then there is the troublesome problem of actually working.  It is a common, though perhaps not proven idea, that many  unemployed young males, in inner-city areas with unemployment rates pushing 20%, simply are not prepared to show up at 8 AM  and do a job in a responsible manner, thus not ready to fill the needed job slots. Another answer to the “low wage” problem is that, if illegals were not available, the employers would be forced to either go out of business, or raise their wages and benefits enough to make them attractive. While the result might mean a serious increase in the cost of Californian and Floridian produce, or mid-western beef, and many other articles, the social equation here seems to favor employing American workers at a higher wage level. There is the argument that we are all immigrants, but this seems to have little force since it is easy to differentiate between immigrants who entered legally, and those who did not. The major concern is “fairness”, the question of sending back to a home country the worker who has held a job for years, is raising a family, possibly with legal relatives nearby, and children in school. And beyond fairness is plain sympathy. Many people feel it is just too mean and harsh to tear illegal immigrants out of their place in the community, maybe with children, and ship them off abroad. What responsibility do we have to citizens of less favored countries? Should we not, as decent humans, or Christians, want to help others less fortunate to secure a better life for themselves through hard work and  sacrifice?

Some of these questions have anwers that are easier than others. If we were true shirt-off –the- back Christians, perhaps we would just throw open the doors and allow anyone who wished to enter our country. But the fact is that we will not operate that way, and we as a nation will wish to maintain to some extent our “life-style” if possible, and will not simply allow free entry. We, as a nation, will allow planned  immigration with quotas decided by our representatives in Congress, and with selection of immigrants in fields that are thought to benefit our national welfare. As noted above, the USA currently allows >400,000 legal immigrants annually under a quota system. Sometimes this can be a problem. For example, importing thousands of MDs lowers the availability of good medical care in many other countries. And as noted, there is an apparent consensus to limit future illegal immigration, although the methods and practical aspects are uncertain or even questionable. But let us agree that we should limit future immigration to our agreed  on quotas, and find the proper methods to prevent  illegal entry. Some simple methods such as enforced scrutiny of documents before employment, and national identity cards, could make this process much easier and more efficient.

But in addition to deciding to stop the flow, and stopping the flow, the bigger question remains of handling the millions currently here. I do not believe there is a perfect program so far brought forward, or we would already know about it. Any program has problems of balancing fairness, and unfairness. We do not wish to reward  illegal behavior,  or punish individuals who have already contributed to our society. I believe we need a program that includes attention to individuals with established families, and a record of gainful employment. Thus, immigrants who have no significant criminal record, can show they have been employed for 5 years, who have children born in this country (at a certain cut off date), might be allowed to enter a path to citizenship requiring continued employment, mastering  English, and attaining a high-school equivalent education. Sinilarly, students in high school and college, who are progressing well and maintain that standing, should be offered a similar program, That leaves primarily single or childless married adults, who could be offered temporary work permits in meeded jobs, and possible green card status in the future, or be required to return to their home country. They could be given priority for legal return within quotas if they wished. The problem then becomes one of identifying and finding the illegal immigrants, but careful  scrutiny of papers before employment, and identity cards, would go a long way toward making that process simple and effective. Is such a program fair? That question is more difficult to answer. It offeres some fairness to regular citizens and legal immigrants who must compete in the labor force, to school systems, hospitals, and welfare organizations that must subsidize social services, and it lowers the demand on our “infrastructure” that millions of additional citizens would certainly require. It is fair to illegal immigrants who meet the requirements for a path to citizenship. Whether it is fair to send others home is uncertain. But also uncertain is whether we owe these individuals more than our sympathy. It may be instructive to consider the situation in many other countries such as France, Germany, Brazil, China, and Japan. If a US citizen entered such a country without proper visa and took a job, deportation would be prompt and without apology.