The Myth of Amnesty

A stretch of the border separating Mexico, on the left, and Arizona.
A stretch of the border separating Mexico, on the left, and Arizona. (By Matt York -- Associated Press)

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By Janet Napolitano
Sunday, June 10, 2007

On the subject of immigration, my plea to Congress is loud and clear: You can't quit now. Last week the Senate was on the verge of addressing our broken immigration system. No, the compromise bill wasn't perfect. But our current system is a disaster. I implore lawmakers to go back to the table, iron out their differences and give us an immigration system that is enforceable, and the resources to enforce it.

Opponents of the Senate immigration bill -- those who really want to do nothing -- merely yelled "amnesty" in place of reasoned opposition. They were -- and are -- just plain wrong. Don't let them derail your efforts.

No one favors illegal immigration. But there are upwards of 12 million people illegally in this country -- people who work, who have settled their families and who have raised their children here. For 20 years our country has done basically nothing to enforce the 1986 legislation against either the employers who hired illegal immigrants or those who crossed our borders illegally to work for them. Accordingly, our current system is, effectively, silent amnesty.

If we have no comprehensive immigration reform this year, and if we do not deal rigorously and openly with those already here, silent amnesty will continue. As a border-state governor who has dealt with immigration issues more than any other governor I know of, I am certain that continued inaction by Congress -- silent amnesty -- is the worst of all worlds.

Consider what happens when we have an immigration system that is based on silent amnesty and that is unenforced and unenforceable. To look "tough," what little enforcement we have ends up being arbitrary and unfair. For example:

· A man in the United States illegally was pulled over in Phoenix and charged with driving under the influence. Immigration officers arrested him, his wife and their 19-year-old son, who were also here illegally. An aunt says that their 12-year-old daughter -- who is an American citizen -- cries every day for the family members who had to leave her behind. This is a fair immigration system?

· The Immigration Customs and Enforcement agency has sent several top-ranking students from Arizona State University to a camp in Eloy, Ariz., to await deportation to countries they have never lived in. The students have earned top marks, have never been in serious legal trouble and by all measures are primed to become productive members of our economy. This is a wise immigration policy?

· A team from an Arizona high school that has a high percentage of immigrant students went to Upstate New York in 2002 to compete in a science fair. After winning the top prize, the students crossed into Canada to see Niagara Falls -- and were stopped at the border when they tried to return. After nine hours of interrogation they were allowed back into the United States, but a years-long legal battle ensued over whether they should be deported. We spent precious law enforcement resources on these high school students rather than on combating putative terrorist threats or, indeed, on infectious tuberculosis carriers. This is good homeland security?

Don't label me soft on illegal immigration. As a U.S. attorney (predating the Gonzales Justice Department), I supervised the prosecution of more than 6,000 immigration felonies. I govern a state where, in 2005, there were 550,000 apprehensions of illegal immigrants. I declared a state of emergency at our border that year, and I was the first governor in the nation to call for assistance from the National Guard. I have also established task forces on vehicle theft and the manufacture of fraudulent identification to complement federal law enforcement efforts.

State measures, however, will never substitute for federal legislation that addresses all aspects of immigration, from border security to employer sanctions to pathways to citizenship. It is fundamentally unfair and unrealistic to suggest that our system remain as it is and ignore the 12 million who ran the gantlet at the border and managed to find work in our country. It is not "amnesty" to require these individuals to earn the privilege of citizenship, as have the millions of immigrants who came before them. While illegal immigration is a crime, "amnesty" is a bumper sticker -- not a solution.

We need comprehensive reform, and we need it this year.

The writer, a Democrat, is governor of Arizona.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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