Immigration: legal yes, illegal no

IF recent polling on US immigration accurately measures how the public perceives this issue, Congress and the White House have a larger challenge than they might have expected in enacting a new immigration control bill. Washington itself may have allowed important distinctions about immigration control -- between legal and illegal immigration -- to become blurred.

On the positive side, Americans still favor a crackdown on illegal immigration, a Media General-Associated Press survey finds. They also want laws to prevent the hiring -- certainly any knowing hiring -- of illegal aliens.

An immigration reform law to deal with illegal immigration, such as the measure that stalled in Congress last year, is long overdue and should be enacted as quickly as possible.

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Just as disturbing, however, is evidence that the public is becoming almost as averse to legal immigration as to illegal immigration. Many Americans would make legal immigration much harder than it is now. They would not grant priority to people fleeing to the US for political reasons. And they would require the deportation of illegal aliens, no matter how long they had lived in the US.

Granted, the immigration issue involves many trade-offs. But the distinction between legal and illegal immigration should be preserved. Congress and the White House need to do a much better job than they have done in identifying that distinction.

Illegal immigration is not in the nation's long-range interest: It is unfair to people seeking legal entry; it does not enable the nation to strike a balanced distribution among its admission categories; it often presents states and municipalities, as well as the federal government, with added social and welfare costs.

Legal immigration is quite a different matter.

Continued, although controlled, legal immigration is important to a society like America's. Immigrants bring new perspectives and skills, new energies, which enrich the nation's social, political, and cultural life. Immigrants often assume the threshold jobs that longer-time residents decline.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Gradually to close off America's borders to legal immigrants would be to deny the continuing relevance of America as a land of refuge and renewed opportunity. Such a concept of opportunity is as essential to resident Americans, no matter how long they or their families have been established on the New World shores, as to those still living abroad who wish to come.

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