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How do you fix a broken immigration system?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 1, 2010 - "It's broken."

Despite differing viewpoints, nearly everyone the Beacon spoke with about our immigration system had that same answer. Their thoughts on reform differ in many ways, but agreements did crop up and often included the need to simplify the bureaucracy, to control our borders better and to impose some penalties on people who came here illegally or who are now here undocumented, without necessarily sending them home.

Interviews were edited for clarity and length.

Stephen H. Legomsky

Legomsky, the John S. Lehmann university professor, teaches immigration law at Washington University and has advised both Republican and Democratic administrations on immigration and refugee issues. He's also testified before Congress and chaired several nationwide committees on the subjects. His immigration law text book is used at more than 150 law schools.

What do you think of our current immigration system? How well does it work?

Legomsky: Right now there is a huge gap in current U.S. immigrant selection policy. People legally admitted as immigrants have to wait several years to reunite with new spouses or new children, if, as is often the case, the spouses and children are not U.S. citizens. At present, if a lawful permanent resident noncitizen (i.e., a person with a green card) marries a noncitizen or becomes the parent of a noncitizen child, it takes about five years for the new spouse or new child to be admitted to the U.S. -- and it's about seven years if they're from Mexico. Hundreds of thousands of these spouses and children have been waiting in the queue for years. In my view, this is not only unconscionable from a humanitarian standpoint -- and contrary to the respect for family values that lawmakers routinely claim to embrace -- but practically an invitation for people to immigrate illegally.

What are your thoughts on the Arizona immigration law? Where will it lead, and is the rest of the country headed that way?

In answer, Legomsky directed the Beacon to his response in a recent "Room For Debate," in the New York Times.

What changes, if any, would you make to reform the system?

Legomsky: First, I would allow the spouses and minor children of lawful permanent residents to join their U.S. sponsors as soon as they meet all the requirements, rather than keep the families cruelly and needlessly separated for several years. Second, some form of legalization is a practical necessity for the bulk of the current population of undocumented immigrants. It is fair to impose conditions, such as a reasonable waiting period, payment of any back taxes owed, and even a monetary penalty, but the problem cannot be ignored.

Legalization admittedly won't solve the problem of future illegal immigration -- that's not its purpose -- but it will bring families (including children) out of the shadows, encourage more of them to pay taxes, diminish the capacity of employers to exploit their undocumented status to the detriment of both the immigrants themselves and authorized U.S. workers, and it will enable the government to learn who they are and where they are. Since no one expects this population to leave the country voluntarily, we have to accept the reality that they are here to stay and that they will be our neighbors for the long haul. Legal status is better than illegal status for all concerned.

What would it take to make those changes a reality?

Legomsky: To be politically plausible, both of these reforms will have to be linked to enhanced resources for border and interior enforcement. Those resources have already risen dramatically in recent years, but I don't believe the public is generally aware of this. Further increases will almost certainly be a political precondition for any sort of comprehensive immigration reform.

Fran Eaton

Eaton is the editor of IllinoisReview.com and a conservative political columnist for the Sun Times News Group's Southtown Star.

How do you view the immigration system right now?

Eaton: It's broken and needs to be revamped in many ways. The place to begin is to have the borders enforced, protected and secured -- and then to go from there.

I want the law enforced. Someone who's here illegally needs to pay some price for being illegal. They knew they were breaking the law and if they came that way, they need to get back and go to the back of the line. There needs to be some kind of a punishment, if you want to use the word punishment, for breaking the law. It is a privilege to be in the United States. It is not a right. It is a privilege. And so we need to have the laws enforced and let's go from there.

What would take to make the changes that you talked about a reality?

Eaton: In Illinois right now, former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was successful in that there is no residency requirement to get health care for children. We all want our kids to be healthy and cared for. But the whole idea that they're not even citizens of the state of Illinois or the United States, if they're getting health care, that definitely is an entitlement that needs to be dealt with. We all need to carry our fair share, and this is where the anger and frustration come from. There are only so many people who are able to pay the taxes that cover this. All of these things, it's almost to a point where it's going to take a whole lot of work to get us out of this.

What are the biggest challenges to the kind of reform you'd like to see?

Eaton: Lack of determination, trying to deal with reality. We are all paying for this, every day they postpone dealing with it, the cost increases. Perhaps we need compromise on both sides to begin talking about it. (Some pro-immigration supporters) want complete amnesty. That's their starting point and that kind of thing is just unrealistic. They need to look at it in a way with respect to the law, again, and look how we can try to come to some sort of a compromise in the middle.

If the reforms that you're talking about were made, what impact would that have on our country?

Eaton: I think it has started regarding what's happening in Arizona and other states who are sympathizing with that. It's happening. It's become a reality. It may not be pretty, it may not be the way we would like it to go. It's coming from the bottom up, from those who face it day after day. Not too far from where I live, a township sent a huge message in a subtle way. They decided that English would be their official language. It's not bigotry or racism or anything, it's just trying to have respect for the American way of life. We're going to see more and more of that approach.

Sister Concha de la Cruz

Sr. de la Cruz is a Hispanic ministry missionary for the Sisters of Loretto. Originally from El Paso, Texas, she has lived in St. Louis since the 1990s and worked with the Hispanic community here in a number of ways, as well as taught Spanish at St. Cecilia School and Academy.

What are your views on our current immigration system?

De la Cruz: I think it is very, very cruel. A lot of these problems are created by the government's own interactions with other countries -- NAFTA for example -- that have left the people, especially the people in Mexico, totally unable to support themselves and their families and so they come out seeking a place to work. 

Most families with whom I work are supporting two families or even three or four. They are working here in jobs that no one would want -- cleaning toilets, cleaning houses, doing all kinds of odd jobs to support themselves here. At the same time, they send money to their families for them to have something to eat. The families that I work with would all like to stay here. They're trying desperately to learn English; they really would become good citizens. They're just trying to survive.

What changes would you make to reform the immigration system?

De la Cruz: First of all, I would find a way for the people who are here who are being good citizens and want to stay, I would provide a path to legalization, even if that includes a fine, because they're willing to pay it. I would also try to have family reunification. Then I would also like to see a path to citizenship. The Dream Act is on the minds of everybody. That would allow children of undocumented parents that themselves might be undocumented, that have come here as children, that were brought by their parents and have no fault in any of this, to attend college and they also would be given a way to legalize if they could work so that they could earn a living.

Kristen Hare