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Why immigration reform should take its cue from reality

The Sunday Washington Post featured a thoughtful article about illegal immigration by Roberto Suro. Suro argues that we make a big mistake by viewing illegal immigrants as either (a) candidates for deportation or (b) future citizens.

I agree. We cannot deport our way to a sound immigration policy. In my view, large-scale deportation would be impractical, harmful to the economy, and inhumane. But providing illegal immigrants with a path to citizenship would reward illegal conduct and provide a huge incentive for much more of it.

Current policy on illegal immigration is widely viewed as broken, and in some respects it is. Yet the current reality (or de facto policy) serves many of the interests involved reasonably well. Employers benefit from cheap labor and so, arguably, does the overall economy. Illegal immigrants benefit from the opportunities that come from living and working in the U.S., compared to their home country. This is true despite the absence of a path to citizenship.

Conservatives should not be surprised that the breakdown of a regulatory regime has produced a system that meets more needs than the system designed by legislation. Indeed, conservatives understand that this is very often the case.

I don’t mean to suggest that all is well on the illegal immigration front. The U.S. must be able to control its borders for several reasons, including national security. Moreover, the current disconnect between law and reality is itself highly undesirable.

So immigration reform is in order. But such reform should take its cue from reality, for a change. As Suro argues in his Washington Post article, reality is best served by recognizing what reality has, in effect, produced: a status somewhere between illegal immigrant and candidate for future citizenship.

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