Immigration is of course a major topic in the current election cycle, although at this point it seems unlikely to be an issue on which much will turn, with Iraq, the economy, social/moral issues and others taking precedence. But it’s certainly one of the most complex issues over which there’s serious debate at this point, and it’s worth looking at in detail. (Update – it appears this issue has just been resurrected in Congress).

My own position on this issue is, I think, more nuanced than that of many others, and it’s strongly influenced by my status as a recent legal immigrant. I arrived here in the US three years ago and received my green card just last year. The process involved in getting that green card was long, difficult and expensive. And I’m about as high-scoring a candidate as exists, since I’m married to a citizen, in my early 30s, am well qualified and working in a sector with high demand for my skills.

This is the main reason why the idea of “amnesty” (one of those words which no-one but its detractors actually uses) or anything like it grates badly for me. The idea that someone who came here illegally and is making every effort to continue to elude the authorities now, illegally, should somehow be let off the hook and allowed to stay for around the same amount of money I paid to become a legal alien through the proper channels just winds me up in a big way.

Mark Steyn, a fellow Brit and conservative commentator, opened his remarks to the CPAC conference with these words:

As you can tell [from my accent], I’m an immigrant. I hasten to add, I’m not an illegal immigrant. I’m a legal one, and boy, I wouldn’t make that mistake again.

He’s joking, of course, but for those of us who arrived via the legitimate route (the modern day equivalent of Ellis Island rather than the Rio Grande), the proposed solution to the problem of illegal immigration does make us wonder why we went to all that trouble.

My other main problem with the proposals put on the table by John McCain and others is that they feed into the much wider problem of “unenforceable laws”. It has become more and more common for the statute books to say one thing, and the actions of the police and the courts to say another on a given issue, because there is a mismatch between the intention of the law and the resources dedicated to enforcing it. Drug policy is an obvious example, but illegal immigration is another.

Yes, we need immigrants, both at the top and the bottom of the economic ladder. There really are jobs which most American citizens consider beneath them, and if there are immigrants willing to do those jobs, we should let them. At the other end of the spectrum are the Asians and to a lesser extent others who come here for a world-class education and then can’t stay, so they take their American-made skills back home with them in a new form of the brain drain, further bolstering their countries’ ability to compete with the US. But we don’t solve either of these problems by simply failing to apply current policy adequately. The latter group don’t come in illegally if they can’t get in legitimately – they just don’t come at all. While the former group simply comes anyway, and then fails to pay taxes, vote, drive with a licence or otherwise become a fully-fledged part of society.

The solution is to sit back and decide what level of immigration is appropriate among both those groups, and others inbetween (including relatives of those already here). We need a proactive immigration strategy, and then we need to enforce that strategy appropriately. Yes, we need to deal with the 10+ million who are already here, but we need to make it easier and cheaper for those who are willing to take the proper route and arrive legally than we make it for those who are already here illegally, to preserve incentives for those yet to arrive. And we need to tighten up the borders to ensure that we – and not the hordes of illegal immigrants who arrive each year – make the decision about who gets in and who doesn’t.

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