“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Emma Lazarus’s words, which appear on a plaque at the base of the Statue of Liberty, have always signified America as a safe haven for all. Amidst the recent immigration debate dividing the country, however, America’s open-arms policy has been seriously placed into question.

Sarah Royce

The hotly debated legislation that has already passed in the House and is now awaiting consideration in the Senate would make it a felony to enter the United States illegally. It would impose stringent penalties on employers and others who knowingly hire or provide succor to illegal immigrants – as much as a $25,000 fine per violation. The bill also requires new investments in border security and technology, including a 700-mile wall between the U.S.-Mexico border.

Considered less extreme, the alternative McCain-Kennedy bill differs most obviously in that it offers illegal immigrants what some consider amnesty and provides a measure toward permanent residence and citizenship. Known as a guest worker program, this would enable undocumented workers to apply for temporary legal status after six years and eventually grant them citizenship upon proving that they’re employed in the United States. They also would have to pay a $2,000 fine, submit to background and security checks, learn civics and English and pay back taxes.

Like any hot-button issue, it’s unclear exactly what the crux of the matter is. Are we really concerned that illegal immigrants might suck up our welfare dollars and expose the masses to tuberculosis, or is the white noise simply a politically correct guise for xenophobia?

From an economic standpoint it makes sense that certain occupations – like restaurant cooks, domestic servants and migrant farmers – are filled by low-skilled immigrant labor. This is because of the discrepancy between foreign and domestic wages – roughly half of Mexico’s population lives on less than $5 a day, whereas the national minimum wage in this country is $5.15 an hour. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, illegal immigrants occupy more than 20 percent of unskilled or migrant job positions.

Many of those immigrants actually add to the nation’s fiscal growth because they cannot redeem any tax refunds associated with their wages. The New York Times wrote that the Social Security system is supplemented with as much as $7 billion a year from illegal wages.

If the illegal labor market is curbed, then theoretically employers will have to raise salaries to attract domestic talent. But after being conditioned to discard menial jobs to those on the periphery for so many years, will Americans bite the bait?

Let’s be honest: We as a nation are stingy and are usually willing to risk social conscience for a buck saved – excepting the Coca-Cola controversy at the University, of course. In 2003, Wal-Mart was caught with more than 300 illegal workers in 21 states, but that has not diminished its position as the most successful retailer in the world. Sure, every good liberal brags that she loathes the retail giant but makes an exception when she’s on a budget. If Americans were willing to pay higher prices, employers would not resort to cruel and illegal labor and would only have outsourcing as a cost control.

The solution to illegal immigration is difficult and imperfect at best. As a nation founded on and benefiting from centuries of immigration, it is hypocritical and un-American to take down the “vacancy” sign now.

But it is simply not realistic, neither financially nor on a security basis, to welcome everyone. It is one thing to work here honestly and add value to society, but quite another to freeload and expect social cohesion. Amnesty for those already here appears to be the most plausible solution, but rewarding illegal immigrants while numerous legal immigrants wait in line at the mercy of a government bureaucracy sends a dangerous message of unfairness. As a legal immigrant myself, it took 16 years – not six – before I officially became a citizen.

Illegal immigration will only get worse if unabated. Somehow lawmakers will have to reconcile this and pacify the electorate, without turning the country into a Wild Wild West of minutemen or destroying the American Dream.

Krishnamurthy can be reached at sowmyak@umich.edu

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