Wandering Too Long


Published March 31, 2010, issue of April 09, 2010.
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What is the Exodus story, anyhow, but a tale of immigration? The theological lesson of the Passover holiday is God’s redemption of the Israelite slaves from their Egyptian taskmasters. But after the plagues and the sea crossing and the years wandering in the desert, the Israelites become just another immigrant group in their new land, albeit with quite a special sponsor.

Their “path to citizenship” lasted 40 years. Some illegal immigrants in America have been waiting almost as long

Now that health care reform is actually law, advocates for an overhaul of the nation’s inadequate immigration policy hope that this issue will be next on President Obama’s plate. It’s a fair request, given his long-standing promise to enact reform, and the increasing human, economic and administrative costs of inaction. But it’s a tough request to honor in this political climate, requiring more political will than seems apparent in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

The need for reform is indisputable. The Department of Homeland Security estimates there are about 11 million illegal immigrants in this country, a slight decline from previous years but still a seriously large number. Federal law hasn’t been effectively updated since 1986, and in 2007 Congress’s last attempt at reform ended in failure.

In the meantime, federal plans to increase security along the border with Mexico are stumbling; the Department of Homeland Security has suspended payments on a $1 billion “virtual fence” because the electronic system that is supposed to track people crossing illegally doesn’t work. And many states, frustrated with the status quo, are taking it upon themselves to act, sometimes in frightening ways. Arizona is considering a law to expand the definition of trespassing to include anyone in the state without legal documentation and to require police to determine a person’s legal status. (The police, understandably, don’t like this at all.)

In Congress, the outlines of a bipartisan consensus were unveiled recently by Senators Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina. Their proposal has four aims: improve border security, create a system to admit temporary workers, introduce biometric identification cards and institute a process to legalize illegal immigrants now residing in the United States. Individually, these steps are bound to antagonize some interest group — those in favor of mass deportations won’t want the “path to citizenship,” while civil libertarians are sure to raise concerns about the proposed identification cards.

But taken together, this appears to be a sound proposal. Immigration reform is meant to be “comprehensive” — a combination of toughness and compassion, balancing the nation’s right to control its borders with the demands of the marketplace, acknowledging the need to enforce the law while maintaining America’s tradition of welcoming the world’s best and most ambitious to our shores.

Yes, Congress has a full agenda of other pressing needs, and so does the president. But immigration reform should be made a priority. Immigrants have been waiting for decades. Time to put an end to their wanderings.

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