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By PETER D. SALINS
IN the debate over the redesign of this country's immigration policies, Americans often lose sight of the project's overriding objective. Immigration reform is urgently needed not to fill gaps in our labor force, or to accommodate pro- or anti-immigrant voters, but to ensure that all immigrants, present and future, are integrated into American civic and social lifeor, to use an unfashionable phrase, assimilated.
The failure to absorb immigrants is the bane of most nations with large immigrant populations, as exemplified by France's recent turmoil. The key to assimilation in the United States has been our openness to large-scale immigration and tolerance of ethnic and religious differences. But it has also depended heavily on laws and policies that have allowed legal immigrants to become American in every sense.
Clearly, the 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants now here can never assimilate, whether they want to or not. Their illegal status will keep them from being accepted by their American neighbors, regardless of their virtue or utility. Thus, legalizing their status is essential.
The more problematic issue is the status of future immigrants, and that is where several proposals for immigration reform go awry. The most troublesome of these ideas, heavily promoted by immigration proponents, would allow in a large cohort of guest workers. Guest workers (a group that would soon grow into the millions), by definition, will never become Americans. Like the Turks in Germany and guest workers in other European nations, many will not return to their native countries once their work permits are up, thus inevitably becoming the next generation of illegal aliens. Yet, the favored solution of immigration hard-liners, sealing the border, is untenable unless we also expand legal immigration pathways.
Thus, a successful immigration reform package must consist of three components. First, as the bill stalled in the Senate envisions, we must put the illegal immigrants already here on a secure path to legal residency and ultimate citizenship. Second, we must enlarge the quota of legal new entrants, but not through the kind of guest worker program being proposed. Instead, we should allow an equivalent number of immigrants (300,000 to 400,000) to enter annually with permanent resident visas, but under a different set of rules.
As it stands, there are only four major eligibility criteria for immigrants: family ties, sponsored employment in a few skill areas, documented persecution or selection in a visa lottery. But the majority of those wanting to come here do not have close American relatives, the right skills or proof of persecution. And the lottery offers slim odds.
A fairer approach, and one that offers future immigrants enough hope of success to discourage border-jumping, would award entry on a first-come basis, placing all potential immigrants (with clean records) on a waiting list, possibly giving favorable weighting to applicants from the Western Hemisphere, or those with desirable characteristics like proficiency in English.
Opening up a better pathway for legal immigrants that paves the way for their full acceptance and citizenship would allow us to deal more forcefully with the third component of a reformed immigration policy: stanching illegal immigration. The logistical challenges to border control will remain formidable, but with an enlarged quota in place and more effective enforcement (including deportation and employer sanctions), the motivation for immigrants to enter illegally and for American employers to hire them should lessen considerably.
This three-pronged approach will allow the United States to remain both a beacon for immigrants and a unified society, all of whose residents eventually become Americans in self-conception as well as legal fact. Advocates of liberalization are wrong to justify immigration primarily as a way to recruit workers for our most difficult or poorly paid occupations; labor unions and other restrictionists are wrong to oppose it primarily because it might depress wages or raise social welfare costs. Not only are these arguments empirically dubious, they are also beside the point.
Any immigration policy that focuses on the labor market or national and state budgets can generate only transitory benefits, if any, while its failure to assure the assimilation of the millions of immigrants among us will surely cause permanent harm.
Peter D. Salins, the provost and vice chancellor of the State University of New York, is the author of "Assimilation, American Style."
©2007 The New York Times
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