Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Immigration Reform as a Path to Conscience, Not Just Citizenship

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Immigration Reform as a Path to Conscience, Not Just Citizenship

Article excerpt

How much are Americans willing to forgive the 11 million people now living in the United States illegally?

Answer that and you might be able to predict what Congress will do in its latest drive to solve the immigration puzzle.

A bipartisan group of senators has agreed on the outlines for immigration reforms, one of which would grant current illegal immigrants a path to legal status under tough but fair conditions. And President Obama is pitching his own reforms.

At the heart of this political struggle is the issue of forgiving illegal immigrants for breaking US law, either by illegal border crossings or overstaying visas. Many in Congress now accept that it would be impractical and potentially immoral to deport so many people. And keeping such immigrants estranged in society only keeps them dangerously underground.

Yet any forgiveness often comes with terms attached, such as limited penalties for tax evaders in a government amnesty. What kind of punishment would fit an admitted crime but also deter its recurrence?

The terms of forgiveness on a mass scale are meant not only to help offenders become honest and law abiding residents but also help restore the consensus that rules are worth following. Enforcement of any laws can only go so far. Society also needs shared values such as a desire for secure borders along with having a majority of residents who will feel the pangs of conscience if they break the law.

Thats why the Internal Revenue Service is more lenient to those who volunteer a tax violation than those who are caught. Theres an underlying assumption that people not only want to obey the law and avoid punishment but also want to pay taxes as a matter of societal goodwill.

Many Americans who oppose legal status for illegal immigrants fear an erosion of this consensus about rule of law. A conditional amnesty now might provide an incentive for more people to enter the US in expectation of a future amnesty. Case in point: A 1986 amnesty for an estimated 4 million illegals at the time helped attract many of todays illegal immigrants. …

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