California Primary Countdown - 14 days

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

I am still thinking through the proposal—recently endorsed by Gov. Huckabee—to require (within 120 days)all (say, 12 to 16 million) illegal aliens to return to their country of origin and go to the back of the line to await immigration and green cards. (Total disclosure: one Brazilian son-in-law and one Chinese soon-to-be daughter-in-law could eventually be waiting in those same lines.) Unfortunately, it throws into doubt my whole opinion of Huckabee, and has me taking a more careful look at John McCain.

Yesterday I mentioned the havoc we could expect in our already-depressed housing and banking sectors if all those people were forced to default on their mortgages or leases, or move out of their rentals. Added to that, I’m trying to decide whether all those (and by definition, if we use the term illegal, we are already calling them outlaws) with auto loans would politely park their cars back at the dealerships, or use their cars to drive back across the border. I am reminded of an answer Mao Tse-tung gave when asked how China would respond to an invasion from the Soviet Union. “On the first day,” said Mao, “We would surrender 100,000,000 people. On the second day, we would surrender 200,000,000 people. On the third day we would surrender 300,000,000 people. On the fourth day, Russia would give up.” Is Sears ready to repossess even 100,000 refrigerators and washing machines?

Anyone calling for the 120-day removal of 12 to 16 million members of our economy is thinking in terms of faceless numbers, and not people. When I think of individual people whom I have known and yet who fall within that statistic, one that comes to mind is Araceli, a junior high student I had in the early 80’s. For class, she wrote me an essay about being smuggled back into the U.S. after a Christmas trip to visit her grandparents in Mexico. Her parents owned (I’m sure in cooperation with a bank) a home. She had been in U.S. schools since kindergarten. After high school, she earned a license to work in elder-care, and the last time I saw her (18 years ago), she was working in a large assisted-living facility. She would now be forty-something, a productive member of our society, and (on 120 day’s notice!) sent back to live in a country she has only visited for Christmas. Who will replace her at the elder-care facility? Will adding her house to the over-supply of unsold houses help our economy? Which country will benefit most from using the skills we paid to educate her with? Multiply that 12 or 16 million times and we are talking about a self-inflicted Katrina.

So let’s examine the scarlet lettered A-word: Amnesty. When are amnesties appropriate? And when do they fail? Between 1862 and 1872, the United States under Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, and Grant offered ten separate amnesties, the first targeted to tempt active rebel soldiers back to the Union, and the last to return full citizenship to even the most high ranking former Confederates. Today, almost everyone would accept the wisdom of those amnesties, even where men had actually taken up military arms against the federal government. We’ll call that a success.

For nine years, I lived in Colombia, South America. While there, I taught Colombian history, a history marked by nearly continuous armed rebellions for almost the entire past 200 years. Amnesty is simply a part of their cycle. As generations of middle aged rebels become tired of the life of war, they accept an amnesty and a plot of government land, and a new generation of rebels takes up the warfare. We’ll call that a failure.

The difference is that the successful amnesty did not encourage a new infusion of individuals into an activity the government hoped to curtail. For an immigration amnesty to work, the United States has to have a solid fence. But once we have that fence, we ought to make every effort to make citizens of the people who are actually here.


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