For two decades, immigration bashers have stymied any attempt to regularize the status of illegal aliens in this country by employing one, single argument against them: They are queue-jumpers who illegally crossed the border ahead of those patiently waiting their turn.
But the argument is a fallacy based on a complete misstatement of U.S. immigration policy. There is no such line a legal pathway to citizenship for unskilled workers. Still, this unfair accusation has transformed "amnesty" into a dirty word.
Unlike Ronald Reagan, who unabashedly adopted the term to push for permanent residency for the 2.7 million illegally in the country in the mid-1980s, every immigration advocate today is disavowing it. President Bush vociferously denies that his plan for comprehensive immigration reform has any amnesty component to it.
But amnesty has a long and honorable history. It was first used in the Civil War when the victorious Unionists employed it to give Confederate forces a pass from prosecution. In the 1980s, it was a popular tool of state governments to encourage tax compliance.
Indeed, the need for amnesty is often a sign of the inefficacy, even injustice, of a law. It suggests that enforcing the law might prove more costly monetarily and socially than temporarily suspending it. The biggest reason, however, why reasonable people don't find anything inherently wrong with amnesty is this: It restores the legal standing of its intended beneficiaries without producing any palpable harm to others.
The queue-jumping argument powerfully suggests that amnesty for illegals means depriving others, more worthy, of entry into the country. Worse, it implies that undocumented workers actually have a choice of taking the legal road just like those waiting in line, but choose to ignore it.
These suggestions are patently false.
Current immigration law distinguishes between skilled and "unskilled" workers. The process for acquiring permanent residency or a green card for skilled workers is long, costly, and fraught with failure. But at least there is one. Not so for unskilled workers.
Skilled workers can try to get an H-1B visa a temporary visa allowing them to work in the country while applying for a green card although they're hard to get. The closest equivalent to an H-1B visa for non-agricultural unskilled workers the bulk of the illegal population is an H-2B visa. These visas have just as tight a cap as H-1Bs, but they have many additional constraints. They are meant only for seasonal jobs and are self-liquidating. This means that once a worker has installed a piece of machinery or assisted a landscape company through its peak season, the visa automatically expires.
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