The Magazine

Can Immigration Reform Work?

A father of immigrants has a few practical questions.

May 22, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 34 • By LAWRENCE B. LINDSEY
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Comprehensive immigration reform promises that people already in the United States illegally can apply for citizenship, but requires them to "go to the back of the line." But a key question is, the back of which line? The reform bill before the Senate doesn't require illegal immigrants to go back home--to, say, Hong Kong, to the end of the 10-to-15-year line there--to get a green card. Instead, it allows the current illegals to receive their green card immediately--having, in effect, jumped the line at the U.S. consulate abroad. Then, like other green card holders, they will be able to work here, collect government benefits like food stamps and Medicaid, and travel as freely as if they had a U.S. passport.

The line the current illegals will go to the back of is the citizenship line. Under the proposed law, current illegals, newly minted green card in hand, will have to wait six years, then get in line to apply for citizenship. But even after six years, they will be years ahead of many people who have gone through the legal process and are waiting overseas for a consular official to let them come here. Once those who have been playing by the rules all along get here, they too have to wait six years before getting in line for citizenship.

If we really mean "the back of the line," that should be behind everyone who is already in the pipeline to come here legally. If you are granted your green card under the new "guest worker" system, you shouldn't be able to apply for citizenship until after everyone already on queue has had their citizenship adjudicated. It's a simple matter of not rewarding people for line-jumping.

This is more than an appeal for elementary fairness. There is a very practical reason to prevent queue jumping: It helps consular officials keep order on the front lines of immigration policy. How can anyone enforce the rules for entry to America if line-jumping becomes the law of the land? Once the world knows that we make citizenship easier for those who break the rules, enforcing the rules becomes a nonstarter.

We supporters of immigration reform correctly deride the "ship them home" crowd for gross impracticality. But any kind of queue-jumping allowed by a new reform will create a law-enforcement nightmare for every American consulate on the planet. Worse, every person to whom we grant citizenship has uncles, aunts, grandparents, and cousins who can apply to settle here legally on grounds of family reunification. They, like others now waiting around the world, will have the choice of whether or not to play by the rules. This is our chance to establish the credibility of our rules, to make plain that in the future we will enforce them. If we don't, why bother having rules in the first place?

THE SECOND REALITY we supporters of reform are ignoring is the sheer immensity of the program we are proposing to implement inside our own borders. Anyone in the Washington, D.C., area can begin to get a feel for this by driving down Fairfax Drive near I-66 in Arlington, Virginia, past the local office of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, early on a weekday morning. Just as at all those U.S. consulates around the world, the line forms well before the doors open. If you show up at opening time, forget it. You won't be able to file your paperwork that day.

No one who's been through the naturalization process (as I have three times) will tell you that the INS is overstaffed, overfunded, or particularly user-friendly. Once, having checked the website on how to file a particular form, I took off early for N. Fairfax Drive to jump through the requisite hoops for one of my children. After several hours, I got my chance to hand the documents to the lady at the window. She looked them over and finally concluded, "I can't accept this, it has to be mailed."

I pointed out that the website had said it had to be hand-delivered, to which she responded that the rules had changed the week before. Maybe it was the look on my face, maybe the fact that I was obviously a taxpaying citizen who might actually know how to complain, but she eventually relented and made an exception. One suspects that such victories for common sense are rare, particularly for noncitizens. Serving the needs of noncitizens in a speedy manner is not a budgetary priority.