Jewish World Review March 4, 2002 / 20 Adar, 5762

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports

Common sense about immigration -- AT all-too-loose count, there are some 314,000 foreign nationals in this country who have ignored court orders to leave. And the Justice Department, finally awake after Sept. 11, is starting to look for these absconders. But where begin?

The answer is obvious: With foreign nationals from those countries that supplied the terrorists who attacked and still threaten us. Countries in the Middle East. Countries that have been identified as hosts to al-Qaida networks. Put first suspects first.

This order of priorities makes sense, so naturally the usual groups have objected. "This whole path the government is taking is clearly a case of racial profiling,'' complains Khalil Jahshan of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee.

Well, it's certainly a case of criminal profiling, since everybody on the list will have ignored a court order. And while we wouldn't want anybody arrested just for Driving While Arab, the combination of having broken the law and coming from a hotbed of al-Qaida activity should be enough to place these 6,000 or so from the Middle East at the top of the Wanted list.

Not that the other 300,000 foreigners ignoring deportation orders -- mostly from Latin America -- should be neglected. But there's still a war on, you know, and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, never adequately financed, is hard-pressed. It needs to set some priorities, instead of arresting lawbreakers at random, the way we're searched at airports.

The fear of racial profiling seems to have reduced us to a nation of Inspector Clouseaus. Surely we ought to be able to recognize the difference between (a) somebody who's been in this country illegally for months while shopping around for flying lessons, buying one-way air tickets and hobnobbing with known terrorists; and (b) the illegal alien who snuck across the Rio Grande in '65, raised a family of Americans here, worked hard, paid his taxes and otherwise obeyed the law. And now lives in terror of being discovered.

Not just mercy recommends different treatment for that second kind of illegal, but justice -- and the national interest. These people have contributed to the country's strength and prosperity, and some way needs to be found to let them make amends, get right with the law, and one day apply for citizenship -- though not a day earlier than immigrants who follow the rules.

Unfortunately, in uneasy times justice, mercy and common sense all tend to evaporate. Ambitious demagogues don't help. For their own reasons, they blur the line between the terrorist and the illegal alien, even between legal and illegal immigration. They've long wanted to seal this country's borders, and they're using what happened Sept. 11 as an argument not against terror but against immigration.

Consider the Immigration Reform Caucus in Congress. Every cause seems to have its own caucus in Congress, and immigration certainly needs reforming -- what with an estimated 8 million illegals in the country, and the country's borders all too porous.

But the word Reform can be used to cover a multitude of sins, like denying immigrants who have needed skills entrance, or labeling every immigrant a terrorist, or -- as one candidate for Congress here in Arkansas suggested a while back -- diverting the United States Army to the Mexican border. Although it's really needed elsewhere just now.

This is not to say that the Immigration Caucus doesn't have some good, not to say overdue, ideas. For example: Create a unified agency to guard the borders instead of the hodgepodge of bureaucracies now not quite in charge. Tom Ridge needs to be directing our security in more than title, though it may take innumerable turf battles before he's allowed to do his job, if he ever is.

Although it bothers the frontier American deep within all of us, in my more rational moments I have no big problem with a national ID card, any more than with Social Security cards or drivers' licenses. A national ID system is not to be confused with a panacea, and it has its own dangers, but it's just one more precaution -- not the arrival of 666.

Unfortunately, the Immigration Caucus has come up with some bad ideas, too. For example, a six-month moratorium on visas. Which could deprive the country of all kinds of useful and promising people -- from scientists and artists to laborers and investors. That kind of thinking might wall off America more effectively than the terrorists ever could.

At least one member of the Caucus, Arkansas' John Boozman, would make English the country's official language -- which sounds like a great idea till you begin asking just what official status for English would mean, if anything:

Would we stop postal clerks from answering questions in Spanish or any other foreign lingo? Would contracts in any other language -- like Spanish in New Mexico and along the Rio Grande, or French down in Louisiana's bayous -- not be enforceable in the courts? Would we still teach foreign languages in school? (Gosh, I hope so. There are few better ways to learn the structure of one's own.) Would we start a language war on the ridiculous order of our Canadian friends, outlawing or at least downsizing signs in any language other than English?

There is a free market in language, and it's going to have its way no matter which particular lingo is deemed worthy of the official imprimatur. I'm as much in favor of English remaining our national language as anyone else -- I earn my living writing in it -- but the best way to assure that happy outcome is to let Americans speak what they want to in the land of the free.

Indeed, all around the world, English seems to have bested all comers in open competition some time ago, having succeeded French as the world's lingua franca without any help from government. Few spectacles are as ridiculous as the Acadimie Francaise trying to outlaw anglicisms like "le weekend.'' Do we really want to go that futile route?

Of course we should revel in the delights of the English tongue, that inexhaustible treasure, and more specifically in its American variants, including Pure Dee Suthuhn. Of course our immigration laws need to be reformed -- or just enforced.

Terror may make a dandy excuse to close the country's gates, but there's no good reason to shut out perfectly legal immigrants or ignore their value. In recent decades immigrants have saved America's inner cities. They've invested their labor, ingenuity, energy and hopes in this country -- from California's rich valleys to the chicken plants of Northwest Arkansas that now feed the world.

These immigrants have taken jobs no one else would, and revived neighborhoods the rest of us had given up on. They and their posterity represent human capital, the most valuable kind, the kind that has long enriched America -- and the American language.

Good people genuinely concerned about immigration might be assured by remembering how America became America -- through immigration.

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