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What Americans Want in Immigration

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Immigration is said to be a divisive issue, but it really isn't. Large majorities of Americans favor legal immigration, and large majorities oppose illegal immigration.

But the failure to control the process has created a tiger that periodically pounces onto the national stage. John McCain and Barack Obama both have their positions on immigration -- many similar, some different. And as always with this issue, the details are everything.

John McCain is forever linked to the sweeping immigration reform that went down in flames last year and which Obama also backed. It promised to beef up enforcement of immigration law and put 12 million illegal aliens on the path to citizenship. The fatal flaw in the "grand bargain" was not its two-pronged approach, but its inability to convince voters that the enforcement part would be respected. (They were right to be skeptical.)

Enforcement-first does not necessarily mean enforcement only. Once the public feels confident that the federal government means business about stopping future illegal immigration, it will accept an amnesty for those who came here in more lax times.

Two of the "tough" positions that the candidates agree on happen to be pointless. Least attractive is their support for the border fence between the United States and Mexico. Nearly half of America's illegal immigrants come here through the front door but overstay their visas. The only serious way to deter illegal immigrants is to crack down on the people who employ them. A fence, wall -- call it what you will -- is an unfortunate symbol to put in the face of our neighbor Mexico. And it's no thing of beauty on this side, either.

Both candidates have signed on to the populist demand that immigrants be able to speak English. But the reality is that few poor immigrants have ever mastered English -- whether they were Germans immigrating to the Dakotas or Italians populating the Little Italys of American cities. You don't need good English to plow fields or cut meat. The important thing is that the immigrants' children learn English. They did it then, and they're obviously doing it now.

There is no demagogue-free zone on immigration, but the direction of majority opinion is pretty clear. Americans can live with another amnesty, as long as it's the last. The rest of the debate, if the candidates want one, is with special interests.

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