Immigration under law

Legitimate concern grows about the disarray in US immigration policy. The influx of Cubans and Haitians as well as the unrelenting flow of illegal aliens from Mexico, Colombia, and other countries urgently call for a concerted effort to bring order into what now seems an increasingly chaotic situation. The problem is difficult because of its complexity. But, with population pressures south of the border not likely to ease for many years yet, the immigration question can no longer be shunted aside. One of the major challenges of the decade, it must be squarely faced up to.

Failure to do so impinges not only on US population growth. It runs the risk of building up ethnic and social tensions. Backlash is already felt as a result of economic strains placed on New Jersey, Florida, and other communities currently receiving refugees. Beyond such temporary strains is also the uneasy and growing feeling that the country's basic social cohesiveness may be threatened by the uncontrolled entry of immigrants, especially of Spanish-speaking migrants, and the inability to assimilate them fast enough to prevent social and political divisiveness.

The need, therefore, is for policies which mitigate such strains and fears even while upholding America's tradition of humaneness and generosity.

There can be no quarrel that fairness should be one criterion in setting the law. Yet, as Congressman Hamilton Fish of New York points up, the Cubans, merely because of their geographic proximity, are able to flee to the US even while hundreds of thousands of people around the world are waiting in line for entry under normal immigration procedure. This would not seem to be just. All the more so because Fidel Castro is clearly exploiting the "family-reunification" issue for his own foreign policy goals.

President Carter quite rightly has called a halt to the influx of Cuban refugees until a safe, orderly screeming process can be set up in Cuba and castro's agreement sought for a sealift or airlift. His concern is that uncontrolled Cuban immigration, including entry of social misfits and criminals Castro does not want, will cause so much dissension in the US that the government will be forced to negotiate with the Cuban leader on his own terms. Hence the efforts to persuade the Cuban-American community to accept this moratorium until a calm exodus can be negotiated.

The issue of fairness also crops up with respect to the Cubans' status as political refugees. Those who flee communist countries have always been able to seek asylum on grounds of political persecution. A different standard has been applied to Haitians, however, who are also flocking to the US by the thousands and whom the US government regards as economic rather than political refugees and seeks to return to Haiti. Yet Cubans are just as likely to be motivated by economic considerations while Haitians come from a country that is also repressive.

Will US authorities now observe the new law which defines refugees to include persons from any part of the world able to claim political persecution? Or will they be disposed toward the old view that only communist nations practice tryanny? We tend to think that Haitians arem leaving. Haiti largely for economic reasons. But simple justice rules out a double standard, especially for a forgotten people who have no local constituency agitating for their entry.

This is not to advocate blanket admission of all Haitians, Cubans, Indochinese, and others seeking admission. But the US government should consider the factor of equity along with others -- humanitarian need, reunification of families, and capacity of the economy to absorb the immigrants -- in setting long-range refugee policy and deciding how many and which refugees to admit.

The larger problem, however, is that of the illegal aliens or so-called "undocumented aliens." There are millions, and more are arriving every day, mostly from Mexico but also from Colombia, Canada, and other countries. It goes without saying that flagrant disregard of US immigration law is making a mockery of that law, each abuse inviting further abuse and eroding the system of legality under which a democratic society functions. It is also creating a subclass of people who are being callously exploited. For these and other imperative reasons, renewed efforts must be made to deal with the problem.

In the case of Mexico -- and 60 percent of the unlawful entrants are said to be Mexican -- it is clear that sealing off the 2,000-mile border is impossible. Measures can and should be taken to reinforce border policing. Mexico should not be able to count on US laxness to avoid solving its population and labor problems. But, patrols or no, laws or no, the Mexican migration will continue as a safety valve for social pressures. Mexicans cross the border because they cannot find jobs at home and because jobs beckon in the US.

In this situation the only realistic route, if the US wishes to prevent frictions with its neighbor, is to try to regularize the flow in cooperation with the Mexican government. One proposal deserving closer examination is a system of temporary work permits for Mexican nationals (like the old bracero program), with the US establishing overall quotas and Mexico setting up several centers where applicants could be processed.

In the US, meanwhile, it is the employers who should become the target of government attention. Criminal penalties should be imposed on those who hire illegal aliens. There should also be stricker enforcement of federal and state labor codes by employers, who take advantages of undocumented aliens by violating minimum-wage, child-labor, and safety laws. Some observers suggest that stricter enforcement of these laws would have an enormous impact on illegal immigration. Once illegal aliens became as costly to employers as US workers in wages and benefits, they would be less attractive.

Long-term solution to the Mexican migration problem lies, however, in Mexico itself. Family planning efforts there are already beginning to lower the birth rate and this, along with economic development and social reform, should eventually reduce the pull toward the US. To abet this process should be a paramount objective of US foreign policy. Unfortunately, President Carter has yet to establish the kind or warm and cooperative relationship with Mexico which mutual problems warrant. If Washington would like Mexico's cooperation on illegal migrants -- not to mention a steady supply of oil -- Mexico needs American-run border industries which could sop up its surplus labor, easier access for its agricultural exports and light manufactures, and help with building gas pipelines. Needed, in short, is greater understanding on both sides.

We have touched on only some aspects of the immigration picture. There are others, including the need for a humane, discriminating policy to legalize the status of many thousands of undocumented aliens who have been in the US a long time and are settled down with their families. The important thing, however, is that immigration and refugee practices be looked at in their entirety, with a view to their long-range impact, and that a sound national policy be formulated. A special commission is at work on the issue and Mr. Carter indicates he is moving in this direction.

The American people, for their part, can help by keeping current refugee problems in perspective. There are many myths about immigrants, especially illegal aliens -- that they take jobs away from American workers, for instance, and are a drag on welfare rolls. The impressive fact about recent immigrants to the US is their relatively rapid assimilation and solid contributions to the nation's economy -- their willingness, for instance, to take jobs Americans will no longer accept. The US has been enriched by immigrants in the past. It remains the most generous country in the world in the numbers it takes onto its shores. The heightened need for a far-sighted immigration and refugee policy in the decade ahead should not diminish the spirit of magnanimity the US continues to display toward the world's oppressed and needy peoples.

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