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Watching Our Welcome Mat

A protest rally against immigration reform legislation in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday.
A protest rally against immigration reform legislation in Jackson, Miss., on Thursday. (By Brian Albert Broom -- Associated Press)

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By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, June 3, 2007

SINGAPORE -- The rancorous American debate over changing U.S. immigration law does not end at the water's edge. The choices that Congress will soon make are being watched and judged abroad for what they will say about the future that Americans want for themselves and for the world.

Immigration -- along with climate change and protectionism -- now heads the list of the most urgent and divisive global issues in country after country. How the United States handles the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants inside its borders while establishing new gates or barriers for those yet to come has significant global implications that are too rarely examined on Capitol Hill.

U.S. success in absorbing and assimilating waves of immigrants throughout its history is still seen overseas as a great American strength. The new chance that the American way of life represents for so many is a defining characteristic of the nation.

So it is jarring to hear American politicians talk full throttle of nothing but the hopelessness of having to cope with new tides of foreigners and the need to punish and expel masses of undocumented workers who are already in the country, no matter how they have conducted themselves.

The critics' wrath has been triggered by a good-faith effort by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) to bring immigration laws more into line with reality and justice. Their proposed legislation would establish paths to legal status and eventual citizenship, along with fines for having entered the United States illegally and at least nominally tighter border security.

President Bush has pledged to sign the bipartisan bill if it survives the withering crossfire that has erupted from Republicans who falsely denounce it as a reckless "amnesty" measure and from Democrats who brand as "heartless" the bill's intent to grant more visas to those with skills the economy needs than to families seeking to reunite.

The critics should be working with Kennedy and Kyl to fix the bill's manifest imperfections rather than attacking the legislation in terms so broad and damning as to cast doubt on the United States' ability to absorb immigrants as well as the future vitality of the world's biggest economy.

Isn't the dream of so many foreigners to be American worth nurturing and, where possible, eventually rewarding -- rather than preemptively treating it with suspicion and rejection? Wouldn't a more generous tone toward aspiring Americans make more sense at a time when the reputation of the United States is under sustained attack and heavy suspicion overseas?

In any event, our compositeness -- mine is that of a Norwegian-Irish perspective, by way of South Carolina -- sets the United States apart from most other societies I have observed in nearly half a century of traveling and living abroad. Class, caste, bloodlines, history or demands of social conformity elsewhere restrict the mobility and the serendipitous character of life that Americans take for granted.

It must be said that our forefathers were so impressed with immigration that they forced it on millions of Africans brought as slaves to American shores. That grim chapter occurred in the earliest phase of globalization, just as today criminal and terrorist networks exploit the surging movements of people, goods, capital and technology across borders for their own purposes.

Informed by the grapevine, television and the Internet about the affluent lives of others in foreign lands, the poor, unemployed and dispossessed of the Third World are increasingly ready to risk everything in desperate attempts to flee failing states and seek better lives in the industrially developed countries of North America, Europe and Asia.

One of the first acts of newly elected French President Nicolas Sarkozy was to create a Ministry of Immigration and National Identity, which will delineate new government powers and responsibilities in an area French politicians have treated as taboo for decades. Germany and Britain have also launched intensive dialogues to spell out the rights and duties of immigrants.

Immigration reform is only part of the answer. Developed nations must concentrate foreign aid on making it viable for would-be immigrants to work and stay where they are.

Americans must protect the physical and economic security of their country from the malignant forces of globalization. But we must also recognize the enormous influence of U.S. actions on immigration after two centuries of leadership and relative success in this area. It is a heritage that Americans should not abandon out of inordinate fear or simple prejudice.

jimhoagland@washpost.com


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