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Control immigration? No excuse for not trying

By Pat M. HoltPat M. Holt is a free-lance writer on foreign affairs based in Washington. / June 4, 1980



It would require more than the willing suspension of disbelief to take seriously the prospect of waves of Haitian or Cuban marines assaulting the Florida coast and succesfully establishing a beachhead, or the prospect of the Mexican Army storming across the Rio Grande and occupying south Texas.

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But what we are seeing amounts, in some respects, to the same thing. The principal difference is that it is unorganized and not susceptible to resistance by force.

The United States is being invaded and is seemingly powerless to do anything about it.

The basic immigration law which is supposed to control this is 30 years old and hopelessly out of date. One is hard put to think of a law that could control it, but that is no excuse for not trying.

Except in degree, there is nothing really new in this problem. The United States, as has frequently been remarked, is a nation of immigrants. Beginning with the Pilgrims, the push-pull motivating this immigration was a combination of political and economic factors -- oppression and poverty abroad versus freedom and economic opportunity here. This is what led to the settlement of the United States in the first place and to its expansion during the 19th century and the early part of the 20th century.

It is not useful to try to distinguish between "political" and "economic" refugees. The welcome given the Cubans in Florida has not been lost on the Mexicans in Texas who live in fear of being deported.

In the nature of things, immigrants are the people with the most initiative; otherwise, they would stay at home. They are therefore likely to make the greatest contribution to the country in which they settle. For this reason, they are the kind of people which the country they come from can least afford to lose.

This is something for the Mexican Government to ponder. The United States cannot very well ask Mexico to keep its people at home. Freedom to emigrate is not only guaranteed by the Mexican Constitution; it is a principle to which the United States is rightly committed as a matter of global policy. But it is appropriate for Mexico, as a matter of its own national policy, to consider the loss of human resources involved in Mexican migration to the United States.

The problem represented by the Cubans who have poured into Florida this spring is different. At least some of these are apparently weaker members of society whom Castro, in effect, is expelling, thereby ridding himself of a burden. The dilemma for the United States is obvious: We can hardly in good conscience send them back or leave them to drown at sea; but neither do we want to establish a precedent as being a dumping ground.

None of this would create a serious problem if the numbers of people involved were not so large as to be manageable. Nobody know, but the highest estimate of illegal aliens in the United States is 20 million. This would be almost one out of every ten people in the country.

The territory for a distance of 150 miles on either side of the United States-Mexican border is neither American nor Mexican but a curious blend. A measure of how things are changing is that 20 years ago this Tex-Mex culture extended 150 miles into Mexico but only about 50 miles into Texas; now it is equidistant on both sides of the border.

The State of Texas is engaged in a lawsuit over whether it is obligated to provide free public education for children illegally in the United States. If it does educate them, then condemns them to a true life of illiteracy on the fringes of American society. This is bad for them and bad for society of which they are a part. If it does not educate them, then it not only commits itself to a vast increase in public expenditures; it also winks at massive violations of the law, respect for which is one of the things public education is supposed to teach.

This dilemma is only one aspect of a broader problem which has given rise to suggestions of various means of regularizing the presence of millions of aliens illegally in the United States. Amnesty for illegal aliens after five years was one of the points in President Carter's immigration policy which was sent to Congress three years ago and which has been languishing there ever since. The prospect of amnesty would increase the incentive for illegal immigration by holding out the promise that if you can go five years without getting caught, you're home free; but at least it has the virtue of being forthright.

Other proposals would provide a kind of in-between status -- something less than citizenship, something more than being subject to deportation but without the rights of permanent residents to welfare and other social services. This would be the worst thing we could do. It would represent the creation of a permanent class division in American society and a denial that "all men are created equal."