Thune and immigration reform

I try to stay away from the political but this issue deals as much with the practice of law. Sen. John Thune is getting front page headlines for the defeat of comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate. While I, too, thought the bill was, at best, a horrible band aid approach falling far short of “comprehensive” reform, I feel obliged to call Thune on the carpet for something he said after last week’s vote.

An immigration law e-mail list to which I subscribe had a copy of an e-mail Thune’s office sent out announcing the defeat of the bill last week. Among other things, it says, “Senator Thune opposed the immigration bill because he believed it was a flawed bill that would have granted immediate legal status to over 12 million illegal immigrants before a single border security measure would have been implemented.” (Emphasis added.) There are at least two red herrings in the emphasized phrase.

First, to claim the bill would grant “immediate legal status” to anyone is flat out wrong. If Thune “believed” that’s what it would have done, he and his staff either did not read or comprehend it.

What the bill would have done was create a “Z visa” for undocumented aliens who met certain strict requirements. It also would have given probationary legal status to persons who applied for the visa pending approval of the application. BUT the feds could not begin accepting Z visa applications until 6 months after the bill was enacted. Using Thune’s apparent definition of the word, a person receives “immediate” medical care if the doctor says they can come in six months later and apply for an appointment. Never mind that, among other things, it would cost you $2,500 to apply for the appointment, even more if you have a spouse and children.

The second error is that legal status would be granted 12 million undocumented aliens. Even if the Z visa were adopted, not all of the estimated 12 million illegals would have been eligible for it, something Thune and his staff must know if they read the bill.

The 12 million figure comes from a March 2006 report that estimated there were 11.5 to 12 million “unauthorized migrants” in the U.S. That same report estimated 7.2 million of the 12 million were in the workforce and 59 percent of the unauthorized families in the country had no children. These numbers are important because only persons who had been continuously (and continued to be) employed prior to and during the waiting period and after they applied were eligible for the visa. And while their spouses and children would also be eligible, the bill had a vast number of disqualifying factors, including such things as ever having been convicted of a felony, three or more misdemeanors, one “crime of violence,” or one crime of reckless driving or DUI if it resulted in injury.

Granted, many of the bill’s various border security measures, such as the border fence and unmanned air surveillance drones, would not be complete when the government could start taking Z visa applications. Still, there is a difference between completion and being “implemented.” Implement means “to carry out.” As long as those measures are, in fact, in the process, completion does not impact undocumented aliens who here prior to 2007, the only ones eligible for the visas.

What was Thune’s “solution”? He drafted an amendment to preclude probationary legal status for Z visa applicants until, among other things, the Department of Homeland Security “demonstrated operational control of 100 percent” of the U.S.-Mexico border. If you believe it realistic we will ever have operational control of every mile of that border, you probably agree that six months down the road means “immediate.”

No one supports illegal immigration. Yet it is unrealistic to round up and deport those who would be eligible for the Z visa — employed undocumented aliens and their spouses and children who were here prior to this year. In fact, a 2005 study said the annual cost of trying to deport undocumented aliens would exceed the entire budget of the Department of Homeland Security and more than double annual spending on border and transportation security.

Thune’s claim of immediate legalization of 12 million illegal aliens is duplicitous. Even worse, it is essentially predicated on and creates fear and suspicion of all aliens in the country. His statement makes undocumented aliens the scapegoats for a seriously flawed immigration system. It dumps Congress’ lack of political will to create true comprehensive reform on the backs of persons who are not responsible for the system’s failure, many of whom are here illegally specifically because the system is broken. Perhaps the saddest thing is Thune is far from alone in making such statements.

Our borders and immigration system, including law enforcement, ought to send a message of welcome, tolerance, and justice to members of immigrant communities in the United States and in their countries of origin. We should reach out to immigrant communities.

9/11 Commission Final Report

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