Originally Published in Forbes
Andy J. Semotiuk - October 13, 2020
What is to be done with the approximately 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States? That ... [+] GETTY
There is no doubt that immigration has played a large part in presidential election campaigns. It played a pivotal role in the last one, when Trump declared he would build a wall on the Mexican border, and given Trump’s efforts to restrict immigration during his term as president, in this election the stakes are even higher. The most intractable problem facing the presidential candidates is the existence of about 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States today. One can talk about securing borders and reducing immigration to the country, about sanctuary cities and detention facilities, about separation of families and the backlog in the courts, but in the end one question always remains, namely, what are we to do with all those people who came to the United States unlawfully in the past?
President Carter faced this same question when he was president. He never solved the problem, but he did point out, "there is a permanent ‘underclass’ of millions of people who cannot practicably be deported and who continue living in perpetual fear of immigration authorities, the local police, employers and neighbors." These are people who hide in the shadows, without access to many of the benefits of a free and open society - including the opportunity to become American citizens. We are not talking here about violent criminals or gang members seeking to terrorize our streets – everyone agrees they should be deported. Instead we are talking about the vast majority of undocumented immigrants who, apart from their entry into the U.S.A., are law-abiding residents seeking a new life as productive members of society. In fact, a recent University of Buffalo study has found no link between undocumented status and crime.
There are certain fundamental facts that need to be faced about these people. More than 60 percent of the approximately 11 million unlawful immigrants in the United States today have lived here for at least a decade. Roughly 50 percent are Mexicans. Some four million of them are parents of children born in the United States. Most live in six states: California, Texas, New York, New Jersey, Florida and Illinois. They make up about 5 percent of America's work force.
The way things stand, deporting all these individuals is virtually impossible. That is because even illegal immigrants in America have certain constitutional rights, particularly those who have been here for longer periods of time. For example, longer term illegal immigrants are entitled to the right to counsel, albeit at their own expense. They are also protected by at least the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments that provide the right to due process. Illegal immigrants also have other legal protections. What all this means is that to remove all illegal immigrants from America would require hearings in courtrooms with judges, prosecutors, defense counsel as well as the persons concerned all trying to coordinate their calendars to schedule mutually agreeable dates for hearings before the illegal immigrant can be deported. If you multiply this by some 11 million cases, you have a better idea of why legally removing the illegal immigrant population from America is going to take a long time and will be very expensive. In short, to accomplish this task would require a transformation of the nature of American society and a betrayal of some of its deeply held values. That deserves more than a moment’s reflection - the transformation of American society and a betrayal some of its deeply held values.
A particularly noteworthy segment of the unlawfully present immigrants are the DACA Dreamers. There are some 800,000 such Dreamers in the United States. A Dreamer is someone who unlawfully entered the USA before turning 18 years of age and has resided in the USA ever since June 15th, 2012, either going to school, or being honorably discharged as a veteran, and has not been convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor. These are people who came to the United States as young children under the wing of their parents. They no longer have any realistic ties to their former homelands, and it makes little sense to send them back there. To date, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have delivered on their promises of clearing the way for these people to remain permanently and the Dreamers remain a part of the 11 million illegal immigrant problem.
The positions of the two presidential candidates significantly differ on the subject of illegal immigrants. President Trump wants to deport every illegal immigrant, even if to do so would require a change of the protections currently available to such immigrants. Vice President Biden wants to create a path to citizenship for such people, although details on how he proposes to do that are incomplete. At this time, numerous polls indicate that Biden’s message seems more in tune with the general views of the American electorate, including in the battleground states. But then again, let’s not forget what happened with the polls in the last election.
In the end, the subject of illegal immigrants in the United States is a defining battleground. That is because choosing how Americans will deal with this issue will decide what kind of country the United States will be. Is America ready to jettison some of its long held beliefs and transform into a different kind of country for the sake of solving this problem? Or will it adopt a comprehensive immigration reform package that will include this path to citizenship and remain in tact in terms of its character? That’s what will be decided in this election.