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Who's Right In The Immigration Debate?

by Gregory Siskind

The immigration debate in the country is intensifying as we get closer to a showdown this autumn over immigration reform proposals in Congress. The latest news is the declaration of border emergencies by the governors of Arizona and New Mexico. Both are Democrats and both have the reputation of being friendly to immigrants. There moves are causing concern in the pro-immigration community, however.

Some may criticize their actions as being politically motivated and designed to stave off criticism from anti-immigrant segments of the public. But I think that there is something to their actions. They call attention to the fact that the system is broken and lawmakers in Washington must act – and soon.

Both sides of the immigration debate can spin these new measures as supporting their cause. Anti-immigrant groups will rightly point out that Border states DO bear the brunt of the direct costs associated with the flow of undocumented immigrants across the border. Those costs include paying for health care, dealing with crime along the border, environmental problems associated with the massive flow of people and more. So, they argue, stopping the flow of illegal workers is key. Pro-immigration groups will argue that all this shows is that we need a guest worker program and all problems would be solved. Create an orderly system for workers to enter the country and there’s no need for the chaotic entry of the throngs of undocumented workers.

Both sides are right. We need to get control of the borders not just to ensure that we have a credible immigration system, but also for homeland security reasons. But we also need to be realistic and know that we need to have a way to allow the flow of laborers in to meet our economic needs and that we cannot hope to suddenly replace the 11,000,000 estimated undocumented workers in this country with new workers who enter in such a guest worker program.

As a nation, it’s obvious that we are in denial. We condemn those who break the law to come to the US, yet we utterly depend on these workers. Whether it’s the typical family that gets help from an immigrant nanny, cleaner or gardener or a major corporation that gets busted for deliberately not asking hard questions about the legal status of its workers, the current system has made us into a system of law breakers.

Those who say immigrants take jobs away from Americans have a hard to explaining why we only have 5% unemployment in this country (near historic lows). If we deported every person illegally in this country and every unemployed American magically found work in one of the jobs that opened up, we would have zero unemployment with millions of jobs still open. And those who say they just want undocumented immigrants to do it the “legal way” are also in denial. There IS NO legal way for most of these people. We do not have a guest worker program in this country and coming in illegally is the only option for many of them.

And what would it cost to deport millions of people. According to a recent study by the Center for American Progress, we would have to spend more than $200,000,000,000 a year to accomplish this task. Forget about the tremendous human misery that would result from such an effort. And are anti-immigration advocates prepared to level with the public and tell them what barring immigration would do to such critical items as food and housing prices.

Pro-immigration groups also need to be realistic. The complaints of people living in border states about the impact of illegal immigration are legitimate. And the worries expressed regarding having a system that basically winks and nods as millions of illegal workers come into the country and thousands of employers ignore the law are warranted. And the provision in the McCain Kennedy bill that allows undocumented workers in this country should get to become permanent residents simply by participating in a guest worker program for a couple of years is NOT fair. If workers legally in this country on work visas have to go through a complex labor certification process to prove that Americans are not being passed up for their jobs, why should undocumented workers get a pass? I’m always optimistic so perhaps recent developments indicate that the White House is getting ready to make its move. This week, Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff spoke out in favor of a guest worker program and also indicated that big plans are underway to further secure the border.

And suddenly key conservative pundits are making the case for genuine immigration reform that incorporates enforcement, a guest worker program and the creation of opportunities to get the undocumented population into legal status. David Brooks of the New York Times and Tamar Jacoby of the Manhattan Institute are two of the more prominent recent examples of conservatives making this case.

Finally, a recent Gallup Poll shows that the public has backed off some of the anti-immigrant feelings expressed after 9/11.

All of these factors may not be enough to push the immigration reform legislative process forward. But the prospects are starting to look better.

Stay tuned….

About The Author

Gregory Siskind is a partner in Siskind Susser's Memphis, Tennessee, office. After graduating magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University, he received his Juris Doctorate from the University of Chicago. Mr. Siskind is a member of AILA, a board member of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and a member of the ABA, where he serves on the LPM Publishing Board as Marketing Vice Chairman. He is the author of several books, including the J Visa Guidebook and The Lawyer's Guide to Marketing on the Internet. Mr. Siskind practices all areas of immigration law, specializing in immigration matters of the health care and technology industries. He can be reached by email at

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.