Born in other countries, yet believing you could be happy in this, our laws acknowledge, as they should do, your right to join us in society, conforming, as I doubt not you will do, to our established rules. That these rules shall be [equal] will certainly be the aim of our legislatures.”
So wrote Thomas Jefferson 202 years ago.
His sentiment then holds true today. America should be a welcoming haven for immigrants. But those seeking citizenship must follow our nation’s rules. And our governments, both local and federal, have a responsibility to apply immigration laws fairly and equally to everyone.
Today, Arizonans know all too well how far we have strayed from Jefferson’s wise counsel.
Our federal government has instituted immigration laws that it lacks either the will or ability to enforce. Legal immigrants, who followed all the rules, waited patiently, and sometimes left their homelands at great risk to become American citizens, have watched as lawbreakers enter the United States while our government does little to stop them. Many of our elected leaders actively seek to make it even easier for illegal (the common euphemism is “undocumented”) immigrants to get jobs, obtain driver’s licenses, and even vote as if they’d done all the required work that comes with earning something so valued as U.S. citizenship.
American citizens have suffered as a result of the failure to deter illegal entry. We’ve experienced higher rates of crime, had to compete with non-citizens for basic social services, and endured longer waits for emergency health care.
To cite just one example, many health-care facilities in Arizona are in danger of closing or going bankrupt due in large part to the crushing costs associated with emergency treatment of illegals. Federal law requires this treatment, no doubt with the best of intentions. Yet the costs–which are in the millions–have been almost completely absorbed by hospitals, doctors, and emergency transport providers. These financial hardships impact us directly. American citizens, and particularly Medicare recipients, could lose crucial access to emergency and burn centers if something isn’t done. To save our hospitals and protect our citizens’ access to health care, I helped get reimbursements for these facilities as part of the recent Medicare reform bill. But the immigration issue has frustrated people to such a degree that some misconstrued this commonsense effort as yet another “giveaway” to illegals.
I understand many Americans’ frustration, particularly those living right on the border, about our government’s acquiescence in lawbreaking. And we all know the primary reasons for this abdication of responsibility: the lure of cheap labor; the costs of hiring and deploying border agents and other necessary resources; and a politically correct expression of sympathy with the violators that is often exploited for perceived political gain.
Especially galling to many is the lack of enforcement of immigration laws in the interior. As it stands today, the resources available for this job are woefully insufficient. Phoenix, for example, has only 15 Deportation Officers (those with arrest authority) and Tucson has only two! According to Phoenix Special Agent in Charge, Tom DeRouchey, “It’s gotten to the point where the agents we have been working seven days a week for two-week periods. The workload is that much.”
Border agents who do try to enforce laws are often attacked for insensitivity, or for contributing to deaths in the desert, or for creating border-enforcement zones that one local newspaper columnist blasted as “cruel” and “a death trap.”
Because of these obstacles to border enforcement, I approach the notion of “guest worker” legislation very cautiously. If we are not enforcing current immigration laws, the question naturally arises: Why would we be any more likely to enforce new laws? Without a clear, firm intent to enforce existing laws, what would discourage more illegal immigrants from entering the country in hopes of yet another “guest worker” or amnesty bill in the future? Will we be sending the signal to others that, if they can get into the United States and lay low for a few years, they too could gain legal status (even citizenship) in the United States? These are the sorts of questions and concerns policymakers must be prepared to address at the beginning of debate on new immigration proposals.
As a nation, we need to return to Thomas Jefferson’s point about immigration: that we should welcome all, but take seriously the rules governing their entry and participation in American life. Anything less undercuts the sanctity of our laws and the value of being a citizen of the greatest nation on earth.
–Senator Jon Kyl is a Republican senator from Arizona.