Amnesty has emerged as the pariah term of the immigration debate, disavowed even by those who believe in its goals. But what are the alternatives to letting illegals stay? Deporting millions? Devising other punishments? Doing nothing at all? Few places have struggled with these questions as much as rural Beardstown, Ill., where an April immigration raid at the town's largest employer exposed a community that is both dependent on its undocumented workers and deeply resentful of their presence. Why legalizing the illegals makes sense for Beardstown and for America.
1. Amnesty can work politically.
One day before the June 5 Republican debate, Senator John McCain tried to preempt the coming criticism. He knew he would spend the debate flanked by nine candidates waiting to rip into the Senate compromise bill he helped write, which calls for a salve of legalization, border security and guest-worker programs. So in a Miami speech on June 4, he sought to distance himself from the "a" word. "Critics of the bill attack this as amnesty," he said. "[But] we impose fines, fees and other requirements as punishment." The bill, he said, is not amnesty.
Yes, it is. Whether you fine illegal aliens or stick them in English classes or make them say a hundred Hail Marys, at the end of the day, illegals would be allowed to stay and become citizens under this bill. That's amnesty. And that's a good thing for America. The estimated 12 million illegals are by their sheer numbers undeportable. More important, they are too enmeshed in a healthy U.S. economy to be extracted.
Yet the word amnesty was still used as a cudgel at the G.O.P. debate McCain's rivals clobbered him with the term, and he turned it on them as well, saying that doing nothing is "silent and de facto amnesty." Why are the bill's supporters so skittish about the word? If the past five years of immigration debate have taught us anything, it's that railing against the illegal invasion is easy, popular and effective. Now politicians are being roasted for conceding a reality: illegal or not, most of those 12 million are here to stay.
The heat extends from President George W. Bush to McCain and all the way down to the mayor of Beardstown, where a decade of intense immigration has turned a nearly all-white town into a place in which 72% of the prekindergarten class is Hispanic. "If I got up and said I'm gonna run each and every Mexican out of town on a donkey, the voters here would cheer me on," says Mayor Bob Walters. "But I'm not going to say that. It's not our job to deport them all, and it's not the right thing to do."
Many of Beardstown's white residents were pleased by the federal raid on the massive pork-processing plant at the edge of town, owned by multinational meatpacker Cargill Meat Solutions (the April 4 operation targeted a subcontractor that was cleaning the plant, not Cargill itself). The raids netted 62 people, most of whom were sent to federal detention centers that night and later deported. "It's good they got those people," Oscar Cluney, 18, told me as he hung out with his friends in the parking lot of the local Save-a-Lot store. "The whole situation here makes me kind of mad."
And a lot of voters are upset too but they are deeply conflicted about the right solution. A recent Gallup poll found that 60% of people who were following the bill closely were opposed to it. But an April USA Today/Gallup poll found that just 14% of respondents wanted to send illegal immigrants home with no chance of returning to the U.S. The public seems confused about the definition of amnesty.
Politicians are tapping into the public's uncertainty. In the June 5 G.O.P. debate, Rudy Giuliani summed up the bill's problem this way: "It's a typical Washington mess," he said. He's right, of course, but not for the reasons he thinks. Rather, the bill is a mess because it doesn't fully embrace its most important aim: amnesty. Instead, it is laden with punitive measures designed to evoke a certain toughness that will at most just keep illegals from participating. Amnesty, as defined by its opponents, has come to mean getting forgiveness for free. But under the Senate's current compromise, the path for illegals is not anything close to easy. Under the compromise, the 12 million would face a 13-year process including $5,000 in fines per person, benchmarks for learning English and an onerous "touchback" provision that calls for the head of each household to leave job and family behind and return to his or her home country for an indeterminate amount of time to queue up for the final green card. Nothing free about that.
The touchback clause is party designed to insulate the bill from criticism that amnesty would be unfair to those waiting in line to come legally. But that's a false comparison. If people are frustrated, as they should be, by the fact that some eligible immigrants have been waiting for citizenship for as many as 28 years, then by all means, fix that problem. Streamline the process for legal immigration. But don't blame that red-tape nightmare on the millions of low-wage illegals already here, who form a very different (and vastly more populous) group.