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Getting tough is wrong answer to illegal immigration question


CHICAGO -- In recent years, tighter border enforcement has made it much harder for Mexicans to get into the United States.

So they pay thousands of dollars to smugglers. They hike across sweltering, rattlesnake-infested deserts. They accept living in the shadows of society, without the same rights as everyone else. They endure long separations from their loved ones. They work for substandard wages.

You want to know how determined they are? Since 1986, the U.S. Border Patrol's budget has increased tenfold and the number of agents has tripled. The costs and risks of sneaking into the country have gotten much higher than before. And yet the number of Mexicans coming to the United States illegally has not fallen - it has risen. No matter how many obstacles we erect, they keep climbing over them.

Everyone agrees that illegal immigration has gotten out of hand and needs to be addressed. President Bush has offered an initiative coupling greater border enforcement with a guest-worker program that would afford illegal immigrants already here a chance to stay legally, though temporarily. His plan rests on the sound premise that our economy depends on about 11 million foreigners who are not supposed to be here and that we should offer them a way to come into compliance with the laws.

But in December, the House passed a bill saying, "U.S. to Illegal Immigrants: Drop Dead." It contains all sorts of punitive measures - such as making it a felony for foreigners to be here without permission and making it a felony for anyone to knowingly help an illegal immigrant.

It also authorizes a new 700-mile-long fence on the Mexican border. It forces employers to check the Social Security numbers of new hires against a national database. But it does nothing for all the people in Mexico and elsewhere who would prefer to come here through legal channels.

There are three major problems with relying entirely on strict enforcement. The first is that if it actually forced these people to go home, a lot of jobs they do would not get done, to the detriment of our living standards and economic health.

That brings us to the second problem: Such enforcement is not sustainable. The measures envisioned are just too draconian to bear. Los Angeles Cardinal Roger M. Mahony has already urged civil disobedience if the House bill becomes law. One of his complaints is that it would subject church workers to prison terms of five years for something as innocent as giving an illegal immigrant a meal at a soup kitchen or a ride to the doctor.

If the past is any guide, there would also be consequences we don't foresee or want. When we cracked down on illegal immigrants in cities such as El Paso, Texas, and San Diego, the effect was to divert people to dangerous, remote crossing points - and to reduce the chance that they would be caught. In the last decade, says Princeton University sociologist Douglas Massey, the probability of apprehension has dropped from 20 percent to 5 percent.

In addition, many illegal immigrants who used to come and go now come and stay. Why? Because tighter border checkpoints mean they'll have to take serious risks if they decide to return. Before 1986, when Congress upgraded enforcement, nearly half of illegal immigrants went home within a year. Today, only 25 percent do. Instead of getting fewer illegal immigrants, we got more.

The idea that we can get so tough that all the unauthorized foreigners will leave is a fantasy akin to thinking that if we banned alcohol, people would stop drinking. The central fact about this issue is that illegal immigrants want to be here more than most of us want to get rid of them - if we want to get rid of them at all. That's a reality many Americans might not like, but one we had better learn to deal with.

Steve Chapman is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Mondays and Wednesdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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