It's not amnesty, we're told. Oh, no.
Yet the immigration bill that was recently introduced in the U.S. Senate would give legal residency to the 11 million people who are here illegally. News flash: That's amnesty.
The bill's supporters may be motivated by a desire to create a clean slate. Just accept those who have already made their way here, they're saying in effect. We'll crack down on the borders and make sure this flow stops. Yes, sir ... we'll lay down the law. This time we mean business.
There are a few problems, however, with this line of "logic." One is the fact that we've been here before. The immigration reform bill of 1986 was built on a promise to crack down on the flow of unlawful immigrants in exchange for giving amnesty to the three million who were then here illegally. Judging by the fact that the unlawful population has almost quadrupled since then, we can see how well that worked out.
Another problem is the message that an amnesty policy sends: Coming here illegally works. Why follow the law when you can jump a fence? Just get yourself across the border, by hook or by crook. The next immigration bill will magically change your status.
Amnesty also has the ironic effect of undermining one of the traits that draws so many people to America in the first place: that we are a nation of laws. By rewarding unlawful behavior, we diminish the promise of America: Work hard, play by the rules, and you'll reap the benefits. Amnesty tells those who came here legally that they're fools.
The current bill also fails to take into account what illegal immigration costs the American taxpayer. Yes, immigrants who work pay taxes and contribute to the economy, but we can't afford to overlook the expense of all the government benefits ... Social Security, Medicaid and welfare among them ... that will be paid to the newly legalized. How will a government that currently spends $1 trillion a year more than it takes in fund that?
That doesn't mean the problem is unsolvable. America, after all, is a nation of immigrants. We owe it to the millions who have come here legally over the years to make sure we fix the system, not make it worse.
For generations, native-born and immigrant Americans alike have believed that they could create a better way of life and fashion a better future for themselves and their descendants. And they've been proven correct time and again. Our inherent optimism is alive and well in every man, woman and child in the country, to one degree or another. That optimism is a key component to our future success as individuals and as a nation.
America was settled by men and women who had to give up everything ... leaving family, friends, language and culture behind ... cross the ocean, and start life anew in a foreign land, often with little more than courage, determination and faith. These new immigrants had to be incredible optimists, just to overcome the inertia of leaving everything behind. We need to honor this legacy with the right kind of immigration reform.
For years, critics have pointed to the mind-boggling complexity of our tax laws. We should have a system that looks as if it was designed on purpose, they say. Well, that principle is just as applicable to our immigration laws.
Instead of a "comprehensive" catch-all reform, we need a step-by-step approach that tackles each problem separately. For the sake of those trying to preserve America's heritage as a land of freedom and opportunity, let's slow down and get this right.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org).