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Amnesty for whom?

April 02, 2006

OF ALL THE MISLEADING and disingenuous talk about immigration policy, few words are as disputed, and loaded, as "amnesty." Will the Specter-amended McCain-Kennedy compromise bill before the Senate, backed in spirit by President Bush (and by this page), amount to amnesty for the 11 million-plus illegal immigrants living within U.S. borders? Just about every senator opposing the bill says yes, and just about every supporter says no. Watching them debate the word on C-SPAN is roughly as illuminating as staring at a metronome.

The truth contains more gray -- most undocumented residents will indeed be able to stay put and legalize their status under McCain-Kennedy, but only after jumping through a series of hoops, including a background check, a medical exam, demonstration of some English proficiency and coughing up $2,000.

But such definitional hairsplitting completely misses the way that the amnesty talk warps the discussion in the first place by shifting the entire focus to the immigrants themselves.

If we use the word "amnesty" to describe bringing 11 million humans out of the shadow economy, then let's not spare the other lawbreakers -- the farms, restaurants and construction firms that employ them; the legal residents who don't verify the papers of their gardeners, plumbers or maids; and the people who drive by U-Haul or Home Depot stores to hire some muscle for moving a couch. All these co-conspirators made the deliberate decision to break the law; they are every bit as illegal as those who swam the Rio Grande for work, or overstayed their student visa while the agonizingly slow Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services chewed on their paperwork.

Once we bring ourselves to "forgive" the sin of both the employee who wants work and the employer who needs workers, we can talk about grace for the knowingly complicit consumer -- which is to say, the rest of us. If you eat California produce, buy a North Carolina-grown Christmas tree, drive through a Los Angeles carwash or leave your keys with a Beverly Hills valet, chances are you are purchasing a product or service made possible by undocumented labor. If every consumer who complained about "illegals" made a point of patronizing only companies that use a certified legal workforce, a market for such firms would spring up overnight. But as a thousand previous "Buy American" campaigns have illustrated, principle almost always yields to pragmatism when it comes to a patriot's pocketbook.

Illegal immigration is not just about 11 million people. It's about all of us who purchase their labor and the goods they produce. Maybe lawmakers in Washington can debate an amnesty for themselves -- for allowing the country to depend on an "illegal" labor force for so long.

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