Changes in U.S. immigration law are on the way. The debate over what kind of changes should be made is roiling the country with angry disagreements in the media and demonstrations in the street.

Those who believe America has lost control of its borders are frustrated by the lack of a national consensus on what to do about it. There doesn’t seem to be a fair and practical way to stem the tide of illegal immigrants now flooding across our borders, primarily the border with Mexico.

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Those who oppose President Bush, Senators Specter, McCain and Kennedy, who want to legalize the status of the illegal immigrants already here, are fending off accusations that they’re racist, bigoted and hard-hearted. The Catholic Church led by Cardinal Mahoney of California denounces those who would make it a crime to assist persons illegally crossing the borders of the U.S., as some 850,000 people do every year. Many of the street demonstrators believe there should be no borders and they have a right, they say, to open borders. Mexico, however, strictly enforces its own southern border.

Supporters of the Senate legislation state they oppose open borders and amnesty, but by allowing those who have broken our immigration laws to stay, work and ultimately apply for U.S. citizenship – a form of amnesty – they would only encourage new illegal immigrants to enter the country in expectation of a comparable amnesty 20 years hence. An amnesty is what we provided in 1986 with the passage of Simpson-Rodino, believing we had disposed of the problem.

Opponents of open borders believe that allowing unlimited immigration into the U.S. and providing amnesty to the 11 million illegals already in the country is morally wrong. They allege that it is simply unfair, since there are about a million legal entries into the U.S. annually – made up of 750,000 legal immigrants given the right of permanent resident status, the right to work and ultimately to apply for U.S. citizenship, as well as 250,000 refugees unable to live safely in their own countries who are permitted to legally work in the U.S.

That total number of immigrants is the result of one of the most compassionate immigration policies of any country in the world. Most Americans believe it would be unfair to give any of these rights to those entering the U.S. illegally ahead of those who remain in their own country, and they should join the queue in their own country to enter the U.S. legally.

When I learned that one of the measures proposed by Congress was to criminalize the presence of an illegal immigrant in the U.S., I was surprised. I thought it was already a criminal act to be here in violation of the law. Now I am told it is a civil violation, like a traffic offense. Like most Americans, I have concluded that while I do not want to see people sent to prison for these offenses, I do want them to go home and apply to come here.

One measure that would help negotiate a lawful return to the U.S. for those returning to their own countries would be to provide them with preferences if they have immediate family relatives here who are U.S. citizens, e.g., their children born in the U.S. before December 31, 2005. Another measure would be to increase the annual quota for low-skilled workers from the current 10,000 to 100,000.

When I was mayor, I issued three Executive Orders affecting illegal immigrants. One provided that if an illegal immigrant was the victim of a crime, he could report it to the police and not be arrested unless he had committed a crime other than the offense of being in the U.S. without lawful approval.

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