Immigration reform: Still urgent, still impossible

The News TribuneJune 17, 2014 

America’s miserable failure to cope with illegal immigration is claiming another round of victims.

One of them is famous: House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. Others are faceless: Thousands of Central American children and mothers who’ve been trekking across Mexico after hearing rumors that Barack Obama had stopped deporting border-crossers.

Cantor is just one man, and his political downfall last week was no big deal in the scheme of things. The genuine big deal was the anger about immigration reform that cost him the primary in his Virginia district. That wasn’t the only factor behind his defeat, but it was probably the biggest.

America already has a vast population of immigrants who slipped into the country illegally or overstayed their visas. A common estimate is 11 million – more people than live in 43 states. It is logistically impossible to detain and deport all 11 million people, even if we were bent on expelling families who have roots in the United States reaching back decades.

There’s no way to solve this problem without some form of comprehensive immigration reform. That means a combination of effective border enforcement, tough sanctions against employers who hire undocumented workers, a guest worker program and a pathway to legality for most of the 11 million.

The legality part irks a minority of Americans – a minority of Republicans – who think that anything short of mass expulsion is intolerable “amnesty.” Unfortunately, the fire-breathers outnumber reasonable people in primary elections. Cantor’s crime consisted of exploring reform possibilities that were both conservative and humane.

Enforcement of immigration laws – including perceived enforcement – is just as important as legalizing people. America simply cannot accommodate everyone who wants to escape a wretched country.

Some immigrants who’ve sneaked into United States from Central America have been telling their families back home that the Obama administration is welcoming new arrivals. It’s not true, but the president’s loose hints about slowing deportations have been sending the wrong signals.

The Texas border is now being overwhelmed with desperate mothers with children and lone teenagers who’ve fled poverty and rising violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. The number of children has tripled in recent months.

All of them have crossed lawless areas of Mexico at extreme risk to their lives; there’s no telling how many didn’t make it. Most will be sent back; others will vanish into the immigrant underworld.

This humanitarian disaster is another result of the House of Representatives’ failure to come up with an immigration reform package. Blame House Republicans, but also blame the kind of voter who would unseat a fellow conservative – even a national leader – merely for looking at solutions.

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