When Illegal Means Illegal March 7, 2006
Dennis Byrne Chicago-area writer and consultant  
As the Senate is entering the great debate over illegal immigration, it's imperative to examine the frequent claim of "immigrants' rights."

Bluntly said, people who are illegally in this country possess only those civil rights that we grant to them.

Yes, they have human rights, such as the familiar life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  But civil rights, by most definitions, are protections and privileges of freedom given by nation's laws to its citizens.

This, of course, flies in the face of the contemporary confusion about "immigrants' rights," which proclaims that anyone who lands on U.S. soil, by whatever means, has the same civil right to obtain a driver's license, get a subsidized mortgage or any of the other benefits that are typically granted by law to citizens.

An illegal immigrant can claim the protections of human rights, which cannot be voided by any governmental action.  But--and this will startle and anger some--an "undocumented" immigrant has no claim to equal treatment.

This may sound like a lot of philosophical gibberish, but it has some very real implications.  For example, the teen who was in America illegally and who was denied admission to an Elmwood Park school has a human right to an education.  But whether she has a civil right to attend that school, using our public money, at this time, should be a matter for the citizens of the United States and Elmwood Park to decide.  Same goes for issuing driver's licenses or providing mortgage assistance.

I might sound like a squirrelly policy wonk for saying it, but if the citizens of the United States don't get to decide who qualifies for citizenship and who benefits from government programs, then citizenship is made meaningless by denying them control over their laws and their spending.  So, Americans are properly offended by the bald-faced attempt by Mexico President Vicente Fox and 10 other Latin American leaders to prescribe their solution to the vast problems caused by the illegal presence of 11 million people in our country and a non-functional border.

While we're trying to set some ground rules in this difficult debate, it would help to clarify some language.  A foreigner (yes, that's the proper name for someone here from another country) who can't produce his documents to demonstrate his legal status in the United States is different from a foreigner who has no documents because he is here illegally.  Thus, "undocumented immigrant" is an imprecise substitute for "illegal immigrant."

It is yet another loss for proper usage in the never-ending skirmish over political correctness.  And while the use of "illegal immigrant" may cause offense, it hardly rises to the offensive heights caused by labeling one side of a legitimate debate "nativists" or "xenophobes."

Also, as we enter this debate, it's wise to bring up what we've learned from the past, since we've been around this corner before.  In 1986, we conducted this same debate and the "solution" then was to grant amnesty to about 2.7 million illegal immigrants.  Then, amnesty advocates said we need grant it "just this once," and that better enforcement--mostly going after employers who hire illegal immigrants--would solve the problem.  That amnesty didn't stop the illegal flow across our border, and enforcement, especially by the Bush administration--has been a joke.

Last year, 86 members of Congress felt compelled to urge President Bush to enforce three dozen immigration laws that they said the administration had ignored.

Amnesty wasn't part of a border-security bill the House passed last year.  But the Senate won't escape a debate over amnesty, especially with President Bush pushing for a "guest worker" program.  At least four bills are up for Senate consideration, but as far as I can tell, none of them would immediately round up 11 million people and ship them "back".  Nonetheless, some believe any solution is so intractable that we might as well live with an open border.

To the contrary, we can solve this problem, humanely and effectively.  Strengthen our border.  Enforce the laws on the books.  Restore respect for the rule of law.  Agree that the fight isn't over immigration, but illegal immigration.  And, most important, agree that Americans have a right to define and defend what it means to be an American.

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