I saw a protestor on the Diag Monday holding a sign that read, “No Human Being is Illegal.” That’s a nice sentiment, but what does it mean? That we should end the legal immigration process and simply allow all interested parties to come to the United States? Is patrolling our borders inhumane? If legal vs. illegal is a false distinction, shouldn’t undocumented immigrants receive public benefits as a matter of human rights?

Sarah Royce

The answer to all these questions is no. Borders are not ephemeral. Determining who should receive the rights of a citizen is a core function of any sovereign nation’s government. Globalization notwithstanding, America is still a sovereign nation, so determining who is an American is the responsibility of the president and Congress – not Vicente Fox, not the National Council of La Raza, and, in light of recent nationwide demonstrations, certainly not individuals who came to this country outside legal channels.

This should not be considered a hard-line position, but I’m still somewhat uneasy about it. I’m uneasy because I like immigrants. I’m proud of my own ancestors’ journey to the United States, a feeling shared by most Americans. I enjoy meeting international students. I know that the vast majority of immigrants are law-abiding, hard-working strivers who see America as the land of opportunity. I’m glad that with all our problems, people still want to come here.

Plus, I understand why so many illegal immigrants cross the border. Making the minimum wage is unattractive to most Americans, but it is often many times what a laborer could earn in the Mexican countryside. As long as immigration laws are erratically enforced, the payoff for making it is tremendous.

The recent marches for illegal immigrants, however, leave me cold. The marchers, who want citizenship for all illegal immigrants, have mobilized to protest a recently passed House bill that would strengthen border security and force businesses to verify their workers’ legality, but would not grant legal status to any of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in the United States. The marchers think they’re the forefront of a new civil rights movement. I see them as illegal immigrants who are worried that American citizens might start enforcing their laws.

Successfully avoiding deportation for a few years should not entitle one to citizenship and its associated benefits, but some illegal immigrant advocates want just that. In California, 62 percent of voters opposed granting drivers’ licenses to illegal immigrants, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have allowed them. The Senate recently considered a bill that would have allowed illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities. The idea that a Mexican citizen living illegally in Detroit could pay less at the University of Michigan than an American citizen from Bowling Green is ludicrous.

Still, I don’t blame illegal immigrants themselves for the current problem; I blame business. Employers often look the other way and accept a mutually beneficial situation – the illegal worker gets better wages than he’d receive outside the country, and the employer doesn’t have to pay the even higher wage that would attract American workers.

Anyone who says illegal immigrants are taking jobs Americans won’t do is just looking for an easy way out. Yes, Americans don’t want to pick fruit for $5.15 an hour, but being a garbage man is just as undesirable. Sanitation departments, though, fill their jobs by paying high wages. Without illegal immigrants, Florida oranges would be more expensive, but claims that the economy would collapse are frivolous.

We should already be forcing businesses to verify that their workers are legal and increasing the fines levied against those who don’t comply. Instead, the issuance of such fines has declined sharply, from nearly a thousand in 1991 to 124 in 2003. This is absurd.

Since potential illegal immigrants have such a strong incentive to cross the border, federal policy must limit this incentive as much as possible to curtail future illegal immigration. As for those already here, mass deportation is impractical, and a House bill provision that would make it a crime to offer even humanitarian aid to illegal immigrants goes too far. But illegal immigrants are not oppressed masses being denied their fundamental rights. They’re here voluntarily, and their American-born children will be citizens. That’s good enough.

Kaplan can be reached at aaronkap@umich.edu.

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