Immigration Policy, Not Politics

This week's US House of Representatives vote for temporary amnesty for hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants is questionable on at least three counts.

First, granting such amnesty under a section of immigration law known as 245(i) amounts to allowing US immigration policy to be dictated by ethnic groups and their supporting business interests.

Second, it smacks more of politics than policy. The White House reportedly pushed the idea just in time for President Bush's upcoming meeting with Mexican President Vicente Fox at a UN development conference. A 245(i) extension should make Mr. Bush's compadre Mr. Fox more than a little happy. But with the deal now done, Bush should now use the extension vote as a lever to get Mexico to beef up its own border security.

Third, it heaps more work on an already overburdened Immigration and Naturalization Service at a time when heightened security measures are in place. The INS - red-faced again this week over news that it had mailed this month approval notices of student visa status to two of the principal Sept. 11 hijackers - clearly has more housecleaning to do.

Simply put, 245(i) is a provision in existing immigration law that grants permanent residency to some illegal immigrants deemed eligible to be in the US. All they have to do is get a family member or an employer to pay a $1,000 fine so they can get a green card and stay in the US without going back home to reapply for legal status.

Members of Congress who don't support the 245(i) extension may have felt compelled to vote for it because they favored other parts of the larger border-security bill it was attached to, such as measures to better track those crossing the border.

Proponents say this week's vote will keep needed workers on their jobs in the US - jobs, presumably, that most Americans don't want. But the main effects of the vote will be to win favor with an ever-increasing number of Hispanic voters in this mid-term election year and please businesses who want to keep illegal immigrants on their payrolls.

True, this measure, a six-month extension of the law, doesn't amount to a full amnesty program for all illegal immigrants. But that doesn't alleviate a basic problem for the INS: how to process hordes of new 245(i) applications. Further, although a database check is required, data from the country of origin is often suspect.

While some long-standing immigration issues like 245(i) have been shelved by security concerns, that's no reason to rush them through now. The country needs a well-thought-out immigration policy that legally and morally addresses the issues surrounding immigrants already living in the US illegally but earning wages and paying taxes.

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