Most Americans—polls consistently show—recognize that the mass deportation of the approximately 10.8 million immigrants living in the United States unlawfully is not the best solution to our country’s immigration problems. Mass deportation, any way that you look at it, would be incredibly costly: the Department of Homeland Security estimates the cost at $80 billion, while other estimates put the figure at $200 billion, and those are merely to physically remove everyone, without taking into account the much larger cost of not having these individuals in our country as workers, taxpayers, entrepreneurs, and consumers, which economists on both the right (the Cato Institute) and the left (the Center for American Progress) would be extremely costly. Furthermore, in deporting 10.8 million people, we would be leaving behind an estimated 4 million US citizen children, who would either grow up without one or both parents (if they stay in the US) or be forced to grow up in a foreign country where they may not speak the language, know the culture, or be able to obtain the quality education available to them in the U.S. The costs of a mass deportation—both fiscally and in terms of broken families—are too high.
The other reason that mass deportation is a bad idea, though, is that it simply is not fair. Our nation needs an immigration system that is logical, with a quantity of visas guided by the labor needs of our market economy and with the societal priority of keeping families together. Unfortunately, our present system is the exact opposite: our employment-based immigration system supplies just 5,000 permanent resident visas per year for other-than-highly-skilled immigrants, a tiny fraction of what our labor market requires even in an economic downturn; by comparison, a century ago, 5,000 immigrants (almost all of whom would have been considered “low-skilled” if we used the same categories then that we do now) could enter through Ellis Island in a single day—and at a time when our national population was less than one third of what it is today. Likewise, family-based immigrant visas are so limited that a Lawful Permanent Resident who filed for his wife and 3-year-old daughter in 2008 would still be waiting for them to come three years later, and a US citizen who filed for his 22-year-old son back in Mexico would likely have to wait until that son was older than 40—a wait of nearly two decades—before he’d be eligible to come. Our antiquated quota system both harms our economy and unnecessarily keeps families separated.
So, instead of enforcing the law, our government has largely looked the other way for decades (under both Republican and Democratic administrations) as desperate individuals overstay visas and enter the country without inspection—and as employers illegally hire folks working with fake Social Security cards or pay undocumented employees in cash under the table. We’ve ignored the law for so long that the law has lost its meaning—and millions of immigrants have integrated—to the extent that the law allows them—into our society: marrying, having kids (who are US citizens by birth under the 14th amendment, and who may not have citizenship in their parents’ country of birth depending upon the laws there), learning English, joining our churches, and paying taxes.
To suddenly enforce the law that we’ve ignored for so long now would be unfair precisely because we’ve communicated—by our non-enforcement and the many ways that we allow undocumented immigrants to contribute to our society and economy—that the law does not really matter.
I see a close parallel in the way that our traffic laws work (and don’t work). Where I live in the suburbs of Chicago, the speed limit on the Interstate is 55 miles per hour. But almost no one goes 55 miles per hour; in fact, it would be dangerous to do so. Some go 60, some 70, some 80 or more, and we justify our lawlessness in our mind with the presumption that “they didn’t really mean 55 miles per hour,” an assertion that seems reasonable given that I’ve never heard of someone being ticketed in suburban Chicago for driving 56 miles per hour.
Suppose, though, that we did begin to enforce the law. Overnight, the police would begin giving $500 tickets to every single driver who drives 56 miles per hour or more, pulling over nearly every car on the interstate. I, for one, would be awfully frustrated. And I certainly wouldn’t consider this to be “amnesty” since they did not take away my driver’s license altogether.
The immigration reform that I and many other Christian leaders have advocated would include a fine for those who have entered the U.S. unlawfully or overstayed a visa, because we think it is important that we restore the rule of law—and implement a new system with reasonable visa limit so that we can strictly enforce the law without wrecking our economy or dividing families. But it would not deport everyone—the equivalent of removing the license of all those who have sped illegally down the tollway—because that would simply be unfair.
Some politicians have no response to the question of “how should we respond to illegal immigration” other than to insist that “we need to enforce the law.” That sounds reasonable on the surface—and draws the support of many who believe that mass deportation is not the best response—because most people do not realize that enforcing the current law fully (without the exercise of discretion) would precisely mean mass deportation: each of the 10.8 million undocumented immigrants is, by definition, deportable under the current law.
“Just enforce the law” sounds reasonable, but it’s actually a recipe for economic disaster and a humanitarian crisis. Particularly for Christians who recognize that God has created families to be the building block of society and who are called to seek justice and extend mercy, we must pressure our elected officials to give us a better proposal than “just enforce the law.”
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
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