Both the United States government and individual state governments as well are concerned about the high rate of illegal immigration into our country. There are several reasons for this. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the country recognizes great need to know exactly who is in the United States. In addition, many worry that illegal immigrants take jobs that would otherwise go to people who are legally in the country. School districts struggle to educate the children of adult illegal immigrants. Some at the federal, state and local levels of governments believe that illegal immigrants put a strain on welfare programs and feel such services should go to people who are here legally. The problem is multi-faceted, and different government entities have differing concerns, making agreement about what should be done difficult.
SCOPE OF THE PROBLEM
However, most people are law-abiding residents of the United States and believe that others should obey the law as well. Although the United States has open borders, both Immigration and Customs officers attempt to make sure that people who travel or move here do so legally. In 2003, for instance, these officials arrested over 7,000 illegal immigrants between March and September, 112% more than in the same period for the year 2003. However, many more slipped through their nets, and the problem of illegal immigration into the United States continue to grow (Johnson, 2005).
In addition to the sheer volume of illegal immigrants, in spite of recent increases in staff, the United States does not have enough staff to prevent most illegal immigration (Johnson, 2005). Illegal immigrants move easily across United States borders with both Mexico and Canada, especially in the more unpopulated areas.
In addition, those who smuggle illegal immigrants continue to come up with new ways to move people across the border. Recently, federal officials forced a small plane down in Texas and found four Chinese nationals without proper documentation to enter the United States aboard (Badger, 2005).
But although the laws regarding who may and may not legally enter the United States are clear, many illegal immigrants not only enter the United States but find themselves welcome in some industries as well, because often these visitors are hired to work in agriculture, construction, and the service industries. Willing to work cheaply, they help keep costs down for a variety of public commodities including meals in restaurants and even new homes. However, since these people earn a marginal income, they often put a strain on public services as well as the public schools. Importantly, because our borders are porous and we have no real way of blocking illegal immigrants, this creates vulnerability for national security (Radelat, 2004a).
We send out mixed messages, both to the illegal immigrants and those who hire them. One of President Bush’s recent nominations for head of Homeland Security had to step down after he realized that his use of an illegal immigrant in his home as a housekeeper would become public. Breaking the law tends to lead to more law-breaking; it isn’t possible to pay employment taxes on someone who is living and working illegally. In the case of the nominee his situation was particularly embarrassing because as head of Homeland Security he would have been expected to enforce immigration laws and help find ways for immigration laws to be enforced more effectively (Sanchez, 2004).
CURRENT PUBLIC POLICY
At the federal level, we are unprepared to deal with illegal immigrants. The federal government has space to house only about 19,500 illegal immigrants, with every space occupied. A law passed by congress in an attempt to help future terrorism attacks passed, and this law should expand capacity, but it’s not clear how quickly or completely this can be done. (Johnson, 2005) In addition, much of the information held by the United States government on illegal immigrants is out of date. So, while immigration officials estimate that there are about 400,000 illegals in the country, they can’t be sure. They don’t know whether that number is accurate or not (Johnson, 2005).
Because we have no way to hold all the illegal immigrants caught, the government has taken a “catch and release” approach, sort of like being released on one’s own recognance after being arrested for some crimes. The problem is that most people who are released on their own recognance have roots in the community, a fairly permanent address and a job. If they don’t report back to the court as required to, the court knows where to find them. The situation for illegal immigrants, however, is quite different. But since the government is out of space to hold them, they have no choice.
Many illegal immigrants know this. As soon as they have crossed the border, they present themselves to the Border Police, knowing that they will be released if they agree to appear in court. However, five out of six skip their court dates and become fugitives. However, they are fugitives in a system that has little capability to trace their location (Johnson, 2005).
Recognizing that we don’t know who is here illegally but that many illegal immigrants hold jobs, President Bush has proposed giving legal status as “guest workers” to those already here and employed. This would at least identify some of these unknown residents and provide some sort of accurate information about where they are. However, many people are opposed to this policy. They see it as rewarding people for sneaking into the country.
Another option is the “Real ID Act. This law attempts to maintain the country’s willingness to welcome people from other countries while watching out for the nation’s security. The law would use driver’s licenses, asylum laws, a border fence south of San Diego and increased deportation. This law’s supporters believe that the combination of open borders and failure to enforce immigration laws make it far too easy for terrorists to enter the country and then disappear. The law would require substantial evidence of both identity and immigration status before issuing either driver’s licenses or state identity cards. The cards themselves would be made harder to forge.
The “Real ID” bill would: Establish rigorous proof of identity and immigration status requirements for all applicants for driver’s licenses and state- issued identity cards, as well as strong security requirements for all cards issued (CHP, 2005). It would toughen requests for asylum, accelerate construction of a border fence between southern California and Mexico, which has run into opposition from environmental concerns, and strengthen authority to deport those suspected of being terrorists (CHP, 2005).
Individual states have taken steps to curb illegal immigration as well. Arizona, like California, shares a border with Mexico, and feels that its agencies and finances have been unduly impacted by the needs of people who entered the country illegally. Arizona now requires proof that an immigrant is in the country legally before the person and his or her family can receive some government services. It requires proof of citizenship in order to vote. In addition, the government workers who enforce this law are subject to fine and/or jail time if they do not report illegal immigrants who attempt to get state services (Shoren, 2004). This initiative is known as “Proposition 200.” California, Colorado, Idaho and Georgia are all considering similar laws (Radelat, 2004b).
Other states are frustrated that the federal government provides inadequate support for dealing with the ever-growing numbers of illegal aliens. The National Immigration Forum says that the numbers of illegal immigrants is in the millions, and that states must find solutions to cope with the high numbers (Radelat, 2004b). Both Florida and Alabama have initiated programs that allow their local authorities to enforce federal immigration laws. Virginia and Arkansas may follow in their footsteps (Radelat, 2004b).
While some states, such as Arizona, have passed laws intended to discourage illegal immigration, other states have taken a different approach. These states have decided that many undocumented immigrants can make a contribution to society, and that some federal restrictions should be loosened (Radelat, 2004b).
Since our government reserves some areas for federal law and some are turned over to states for administration and enforcement, some friction has developed particularly around the issue of driver’s license. Ten states currently allow illegal immigrants to get driver’s licenses, although Tennessee marks such licenses “for driving purposes only.” (Radelat, 2004b) Illinois may soon allow illegal immigrants to acquire driver’s license as well, because both the insurance industry and immigration advocates have convinced the legislature of Illinois that it’s much safer to make sure that people who drive have passed a driving test and are competent to do so. However, critics recognize the driver’s license as an important piece of personal identification and do not think those who are here illegally should be able to acquire one (Radelat, 2004b).
Eight states go much further. They provide tuition rebates to the children of illegal immigrants who attend state colleges and universities, even though this means they lose some…