By Robert McCartney
Sunday, August 8, 2010; C01
We all knew the haters would froth when it turned out that the alleged drunk driver involved in a Prince William County crash that killed a nun was an illegal immigrant.
The marvel was the response of the victim's fellow sisters at the Benedictine convent in Bristow, near Manassas. It took them only a day to express forgiveness, and they did so directly to the driver's parents. They also pointedly urged the rest of the world not to exploit the tragedy for political purposes.
I'm in awe of the nuns' attitude of grace, but I'm not pious enough to follow their advice. The death of Sister Denise Mosier on Aug. 1 illustrates key issues in the immigration controversy so clearly that I feel compelled to write about it.
All sides in the immigration debate tried to use the dramatic details of the nun's death to push their own agendas. There are basically three contesting camps: Let's call them the demagogues, the whitewashers and the frustrated reformers.
The demagogues cited the incident partly to press for a new law in Virginia, similar to the controversial one in Arizona, to expand the police's power to identify illegal immigrants to be deported. Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, proposed such a bill in June.
The whitewashers said the case isn't about illegal immigration at all, but about the need to combat drunken driving.
The frustrated reformers -- including me -- say the case certainly does implicate illegal immigration, but not necessarily the way demagogues say. The problem isn't that the police lack powers but that the immigration courts are so overwhelmed and poorly managed that they can't handle the deportation cases they already have.
The Bolivian immigrant charged with killing Mosier and severely injuring two other nuns should have been deported at least a year ago, if not earlier. He was convicted of drunken driving in 2007 and again in 2008.
But the immigration case was postponed three times. The reasons are now under investigation, but the delays are no surprise. For years, federal policy has focused too much on staging politically attractive raids and arrests and too little on the humdrum work of handling the resulting cases. As a result, the average wait in a deportation case is more than a year, and it regularly runs much longer.
"All of the resources have been put into rounding people up, and very few resources have been going into the hearing process," said Crystal Williams, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "You've got this whole backlog, and no one has thought further than what looks good in the press releases."
Judges in the Justice Department's immigration division hear, on average, more than 1,000 cases a year, or about 20 mini-trials a week. The saying is that it's like a criminal court with a traffic court workload. Yet the number of judges continues to hover around 230, as it has for years. There's a severe shortage of clerks, too.
The other problem is a failure to set realistic priorities about which cases to handle first. At present, deportation cases are divided roughly evenly between those involving criminals and noncriminals. But why bother with noncriminals until we've dealt with all the criminals? It'd make more sense to speed up handling of, say, an accused drunk driver, even if it meant letting some folks continue to bus tables at a restaurant when they've overstayed their visas.
The Justice and Homeland Security departments have stepped up hiring and moved to set clearer priorities, but there's a long way to go.
The division between the demagogues and the whitewashers exists at the national level, too, and blocks comprehensive immigration reform.
The demagogues constantly stir hostility against anyone in the country illegally. They suffer from hypocrisy. They adamantly oppose creating a path for amnesty for the 12 million or so illegal immigrants now in the country, but they simultaneously avoid talking about the logical consequence of such a policy, which is that 12 million people would have to be deported.
"The killer fact in this debate that they are not willing to admit -- because they know it's highly unrealistic and exorbitantly costly -- is that the only alternative [to legalization] is mass deportation," said Marshall Fitz, director of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress. A study by the group estimates that deporting all of the nation's illegal immigrants would cost $300 billion.
Meanwhile, the whitewashers basically aren't bothered much that people are here illegally. Some take a moral position that we're all God's children, so what does it matter whether they have the right papers? Others have economic reasons for welcoming illegal immigrants who are willing to work low-paying jobs and easy to push around.
As a result, the whitewashers aren't willing to support truly effective enforcement measures, especially against employers who hire illegal immigrants.
The division frustrates reformers who want a trade-off in which amnesty is gradually extended to people here illegally in exchange for real enforcement of the laws.
"Enforcement people don't believe in legalization. People who believe in legalization don't believe in enforcement of any kind. This is why the grand bargain has always fallen apart," said Stewart Lawrence, former consultant for the American Immigration Law Foundation.
Dramatic cases like Mosier's only increase the importance of pushing for such a compromise. In the meantime, let's hire a few more immigration judges.