Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Crossing Borders With Uncrossed T's

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, April 2, 2002 --  

The anti-immigrant backlash that has festered since last September's airline attacks has taken a nasty turn for the worse. Revelations of incompetence in the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service have recently earned the agency public scorn. Last month's belated approval of flight school student visas for two of the presumed hijackers couldn't have been more embarrassing for the INS. But instead of focusing their anger on a failed agency, Americans seem increasingly prone to blame the immigrants who are the greatest victims of the agency's ineptitude.

The case of Ansar Mahmood comes to mind. The Pakistani immigrant was arrested last October after he took a picture at a scenic overlook, which happened to be in the line-of-sight of a water treatment plant. Although he was quickly cleared of any wrongdoing, investigators noted during questioning that he once let two friends from back home stay at his house. Since the friends didn't have the proper visas, they were deemed illegal, and Mahmood now faces deportation for harboring illegal immigrants.1 Similar stories can be told for hundreds of other immigrants who have been arrested since last September and face deportation as well.

But the publicity from this outrageous case has not resulted in any public outrage. Instead, reactions in venues from letters to the editor, ABC News Nightline town meetings, and conversations on the street have been universal: Too bad; he broke the law, and now he has to pay the price.

Indeed, security-obsessed Americans are now unwilling to tolerate even the tiniest transgressions from immigrants. But this harsh view is rooted in the public's ignorance of the bureaucratic problems America's immigrants face. Simply put, it is virtually impossible to do everything by the book. Some of this is the fault of the INS bureaucracy -- processing times for visas are prohibitively long, and procedures are far too complex.

Anybody who has lived in a large city or suburb is familiar with bureaucratic the hurdles associated with titling, registering, licensing, and inspecting a car. Few people can claim to have been in 100 percent compliance with every vehicle law at every time in their lives, despite their best efforts. Now multiply the complexity of these procedures by ten, throw in bureaucrats who only speak a foreign language, and you will have some idea of the obstacles immigrants face in complying with the law.

But this isn't just an issue of bureaucracy. Not even a perfectly efficient INS could do anything about the fact that far, far more many people want to come to work in America than are allowed by law. The law is oblivious to the ample supply of employers who want to hire immigrants, and the ample supply of immigrants who want to accept that work. It's no surprise to anybody what happens with such a situation -- people immigrate and work without the proper documents.

But "illegal" is too harsh of a term. It implies a moral transgression that, in the case of migrants, simply does not exist. If the United States instituted immigration laws that properly reflected the true demand for migrants, and created an efficient agency to manage them, there is no question that the vast majority of immigrants who are now outside the law would no longer be so. With the current system, people often must live in the United States for years without legal status, in the hopes of one day winning the green card lottery or being covered by a general amnesty. Immigrants do not choose to break the law -- they simply follow a system that requires them to do so if they want to have any realistic chance of becoming Americans.

The Bush administration's proposal to reform the system by unifying the INS and the Customs Service under the Justice Department is way too small in scope to address any of these problems.2 Increased efficiency could help, but not if it is directed at finding undotted I's and uncrossed T's as a pretext to deporting as many people as possible. Reforming the system at a time of heightened security and public suspicion can only make it harder on poor people like Mahmood. Until Americans regain a more realistic understanding that undocumented immigrants aren't bad people, INS reform is a dangerous prospect.

Related Web Columns:

Constitutional Rights: DENIED, December 11, 2001

Profoundly Evil
The Deadly Face Modern Migration
, June 27, 2000

Lessons of the Conquistadors, April 4, 2000

Constitutional Apartheid
America's New Political Underclass
, March 9, 1999


1. The Washington Post, Snapshot of an Immigrant's Dream Fading, March 24, 2002

2. The Economist, Inept National Security, March 21, 2002