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Cutting the line

April 06, 2006

SIMPLE PLAYGROUND LOGIC dictates that there are three things you can do to stop other kids from cutting in line: Punish the offenders, coax them back to their original spot (whether by carrot or stick) or make the line move faster in the first place.

Taking the first two measures while ignoring the third will result in nothing but very long columns of unhappy and impatient people. Unfortunately, this is the strategy preferred by even the most forward-thinking of the various immigration proposals being debated in the Senate. The complex bill supported by John McCain (R-Ariz.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) contains not a single paragraph that adequately addresses one of the most urgent and enduring problems facing U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: clearing out the backlog of roughly 3 million applications and reducing green-card processing times that averaged 20 months in the fourth quarter of 2004.

As anyone who has lined up outside the USCIS building downtown at 5 a.m. can attest, the U.S. lacks the basic infrastructure to cope with the millions of foreigners who apply for either permanent residence or citizenship each year. President Bush understood this while campaigning for president in 2000, when he promised to slash processing times to six months. Though the USCIS (and its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service) made modest improvements, it still takes years for California employers who play by the rules to legally bring in a single worker from Mexico. For the Mexican offspring of legal U.S. residents, it's even worse -- 11 years for the first unmarried son or daughter, on average.

How are immigration reformers planning to confront this serious disincentive? By flooding millions of new applicants into the system. Senators spent much of Wednesday haggling over how many of the estimated 11 million undocumented residents in the U.S. will be offered a path toward legal residency; whatever they decide, the triple combination of illegal immigrants, new guest workers and current residents scared into upgrading their status to citizenship will grind a bottlenecked system to a halt.

Anti-illegal immigration activists point to President Reagan's 1986 amnesty as a big boost to the immigration rolls, and they're right. But so was Proposition 187, which convinced millions of Latinos that they needed citizenship to protect themselves against the backlash. Every major piece of immigration-related legislation over the years has carried with it a host of unintended consequences, whether it's a new voting bloc allergic to immigration-bashers or unchecked power bestowed upon border agents.

But a heavier workload for Citizenship and Immigration Services is all but certain. Which is why the Senate's negligence on this issue is all but criminal. A sped-up application process, more than almost any other immigration measure, would send the right message: Play by the rules, and you'll be rewarded.

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