Amnesty for Illegals? Try Again

The Latino vote has some chance of tipping the presidential election this year. That's why both Democrats and Republicans are dancing around different ideas about amnesty for illegal aliens.

Actually, amnesty isn't a word used too much anymore in the immigration debate. Since the amnesty of 1986, opposition has grown stronger against rewarding those who bust US borders, especially after Sept. 11.

Democrats last month proposed something shy of full amnesty for the estimated 8 million to 10 million illegal aliens in the US. They call it "earned legalization." Migrants who can prove they've lived in the country for five years and have paid taxes for two years would win a green card, or permanent legal status. That's their counterproposal to a Bush plan for a guest-worker program that would allow those already here illegally to apply for a three-year work visa. The visa would be renewable, but with no guarantee of permanent status.

In a perfect world, the two proposals might be starting points for a debate in Congress and possibly a new law. But they're mainly intended to woo the Latino vote. Only next year might Congress put partisanship aside to do anything that could stem the influx of migrants across the border (whose numbers have picked up since the Bush plan went public in January).

Still, the "almost amnesty" proposals are worth some campaign debate. The issue has been helped along by two recent studies. One, from the Center for Immigration Studies, found the average yearly earnings of US-born men between 1980 and 2000 decreased by an estimated $1,700 as the number of immigrant workers rose. The other study, by the Inter-American Development Bank, calculated that the 16.7 million Latin American-born adults in the US send back more than $30 billion each year to their home countries, while contributing $450 billion to the US economy. One third of those adults are illegal aliens. Such benefits and costs of illegal immigration, however, are secondary to the corrosive effects of such massive lawbreaking.

The debate also has been enlivened by the work of Harvard Prof. Samuel P. Huntington, who warns that the slow pace of assimilating foreign-born Latinos compared to other immigrant groups has created Spanish-speaking enclaves that are creating a language divide in the US and eroding the nation's traditional civic values.

Immigration is certainly a worthy issue for campaign debate. But proposals that are simply a backdoor approach to amnesty and designed mainly to woo a small percentage of votes are a stealthy way to a bad solution for a serious problem.

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