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What About 'Carrot and Stick' for Immigration?

By James J. Na

In 2003, three days shy of the Fourth of July, I was naturalized as an American citizen in Seattle. With the exception of the day I married my wife, this was the happiest day of my life.

It had been a long journey since I first came to the United States, legally, nearly 20 years ago. During this time, I have become -- as I am fond of saying to friends and acquaintances -- a conservative, tax-hating, gun-toting, SUV-driving, red meat-eating, don't-talk-to-me-in-anything-other-than-English kind of American. In fact, I had become all these even before I was officially naturalized. Such is the power of American assimilation.

But something else is memorable from the day of my naturalization. Right before administering the Oath of Allegiance, the official representing the Citizenship and Immigration Services gave a speech about what it means to be an American and what wonderful benefits there are to being a citizen of this great country. "Of course, the most important benefit of being a citizen is that..." He paused for a moment and then delivered with a perfect pitch, "You will never have to deal with us, the immigration office, ever again."

About half of us in the room who got this joke-of-sorts erupted in cheers. The other half, perhaps not getting the sarcasm, perhaps still fearful and paranoid that this might be some sort of a trick, perhaps simply not finding this funny at all, just held their breaths and then sighed. They eventually all smiled and cried, but only after their Certificates of Naturalization were safely and finally in their hands.

As any non-native, legal resident of this country knows, the process of staying in the United States legally, let alone becoming a citizen, is complex, onerous and extremely bureaucratic. As an educated professional who married an American citizen, my path to citizenship was far smoother than that for most legal immigrants.

But even I went through hours of waiting in lines, waiting months and years for documents and stamps and occasional Kafkaesque situations ("Sorry, we lost your original document. You must re-submit a replacement. And, oh, make sure it is an original"). Exasperated with the persistent delays in the process, I had to seek help from a congressman at one point. It is telling, indeed, that so many congressmen tout "help with the immigration office" as a major constituent service.

My think tank colleague Yuri Mamchur, who works legally in the U.S., has spent some $20,000 in visa and application costs so far. His case is not unique. If anything, others expend even more in fees and legal costs, not to mention countless months and years spent in dealing with the bureaucracy.

I always found it odd that the American immigration system imposes such complicated and costly requirements on legal immigrants who dutifully do their best to follow the arcane immigration regulations while those who have absolutely no respect for our rule of law can simply walk across the border, go to a "laborer center" in any major city (built with tax money) and can start working without paying taxes, aided by businesses that routinely ignore immigration laws.

Of course, I am not suggesting that an illegal alien's life in the underground economy is an easy one. But the current system, in a way, punishes those who follow the law while rewarding those who do not. It is clearly counterproductive to encouraging legal immigration and assimilation, and promotes illegal migration that breeds an underground society resistant to assimilation.

As someone who has been through the lengthy, arduous process of becoming an American citizen, my proposal for reforming this broken system is simply that of a "carrot and stick" approach. The carrot is that we ought to make the legal immigration process far less onerous and make the immigration bureaucracy more "customer friendly." We should also significantly expand the number of legal immigrants allowed into the country each year, especially for those with education or technical skills our economy needs.

The stick is that we ought to enforce the immigration laws strictly, deport those who come here illegally and vigorously penalize businesses that knowingly hire illegal migrants. And under no circumstances should illegal migrants be granted amnesty or be allowed to "jump the line" ahead of those who are following the rules. To grant such an amnesty under any guise is not only grossly unfair to those who are already Americans, but also to those who have abided by all our laws and requirements to come to this country legally or are still waiting outside patiently.

Unless the immigration system is reformed thusly, legal immigrants who seek to assimilate into our society will continue to suffer exasperating delays, frustrations and high costs while illegal aliens will continue to pour through our borders, undermining our American sense of fair play and, ultimately, our rule of law.

James J. Na, senior fellow in foreign policy at Discovery Institute (discovery.org), co-authors "The Korea Liberator" (korealiberator.org) and "Guns and Butter Blog" (gunsandbutter.blogspot.com).

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