Congress is struggling to clean up the mess that past Congresses and administrations have made of the country's immigration policy.
The crux of the matter is the approximately 11 million immigrants who are here illegally with more coming every day. Current law says they should be deported to the country they came from - in most cases Mexico or Central America. This is manifestly impossible: How is US Citizenship and Immigration Services going to round up this many people and take them back across the border? And keep them there? And keep others from coming in?
The hard fact is that the United States has lost control of its borders. This is scary. A country that cannot control its borders is less than fully sovereign. This is why many people want to get tough about immigration.
The House has passed a bill that gets tough. It would not only keep illegal immigration a crime; it would also make it a criminal offense to help illegal immigrants. This would include furnishing them food, clothing, shelter, or healthcare. The Senate is considering a bill that would attack the problem by providing a way for most illegal immigrants to become citizens if they pay fines and back taxes and learn English.
The House would wipe out the problem by deporting or jailing those who cause it. Either would be expensive if it could be done at all. The proposed approach in the Senate would wipe out the problem by making citizens out of those who cause it. But the Senate is silent about future law enforcement.
To an extent rarely seen before, each of these approaches has created a backlash among partisans of the other. Hundreds of thousands of immigrants have demonstrated against the House and in favor of the Senate bill. This has produced a counter backlash among people who are offended by demonstrators speaking Spanish and waving the flags of their home countries. The debate over immigration has the potential of becoming a very divisive issue.
Amid the sound and fury, some frequently overlooked facts need to be kept in mind. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, send huge amounts of money back to their home countries, mainly to their families. In the case of Mexico alone, this amounts to $16 billion to $20 billion a year. It is the second biggest item in Mexico's balance of payments, exceeded only by petroleum. Most of this comes back to the US to pay for Mexican purchases here. It reduces the pressure on Mexicans in Mexico to emigrate to the US. In Central America, it reduces the pressure for foreign aid.
Immigrants who come here illegally, whether from Mexico or other countries, surmount enormous hardships to get here. They tend to be those people who have more initiative and more energy than the average. They are the cream of the crop, the hardest working, the ones who are not content to stay at home and hope for better days. If all the illegal immigrants employed in the US were suddenly removed, the American economy would crash.
The question is raised of whether immigrants are taking jobs away from Americans. There seems to be no valid across-the-board answer. Most of the jobs in question are for low wages - wages that are kept low by the failure of Congress to raise the minimum wage. And some immigrants are exploited by employers who hire them because they are cheaper than Americans.
Much of the opposition to immigration comes from people who see the US changing and do not like it. The US looks less and less like the country of Norman Rockwell and Mark Twain. It is less European and more Asian and African and South American. The new immigrants are slower to assimilate and are more burdensome on schools and other public services.
It is strange that these sentiments should be held by people all of whose ancestors dealt with the same hardships or worse as those suffered by contemporary immigrants. It is not easy for immigrants, even legal ones, to become American citizens, a status which most Americans attain simply by being born here. For immigrants, it is a long road - waiting periods, examinations on the American government and the English language, and finally the oath of allegiance before a federal judge. For most immigrants, this is the proudest day of their lives.
We should not forget that "God Bless America," which has become our unofficial national anthem through popular acclaim, was written by Irving Berlin, an immigrant Russian Jew.
• Pat M. Holt is former chief of staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.