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Immigration Reform

IMMIGRATION has already been raised as an issue in the presidential campaign and indications are it will continue to be one. While some deplore this and label it racist or nativist, the question must be squarely faced, because America's immigration system is in serious need of reform.

A commission chaired by the late Rep. Barbara Jordan (D) of Texas has recommended a series of changes, and Rep. Lamar Smith (R) of Texas has filed thoughtful legislation as well. As the debate continues, several points should be kept in mind:

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*Immigration policy should be decided on the basis of what is best for US interests, not what is best for specific ethnic groups. Those interests include economic, labor, demographic, environmental, and humanitarian concerns.

*US immigration policy is decided by Congress and the president, not by poets. Emma Lazarus's "huddled masses" verse on the Statue of Liberty is beautiful poetry and expresses romantic notions, but it is not the basis of the nation's immigration policy.

*Although it is a nation of immigrants, America simply cannot continue to receive huge numbers of them. Population growth is creating serious stress on the environment, and native-born black Americans particularly are getting pushed aside in the labor market. Immigration should continue, but at significantly lower levels than is now the case.

*The spouses and children (including adult children) of US citizens should have first priority in any immigration system. Beyond that, qualification for a US immigrant visa should involve a combination of factors, not just family relationships. Adult brothers and sisters of US citizens should no longer automatically get preferred status. Doing so complicates the immigration of those who have no family relationship but who have job or intellectual skills, or investment capital the country needs. The Canadian point system provides a good model.

*Refugee policy must be completely rethought. Any overhaul must keep the US in compliance with international treaty commitments. But the federal government, which controls immigration and refugee policy, should not just dump the financial burdens and consequences onto the states. Accepting refugees is the right thing to do. But saddling Florida or California or any other state with hundreds of thousands of refugees requiring housing, food assistance, and education all at once is the human equivalent of an unfunded mandate and is wrong. Washington should create refugee-emergency funding to assist states dealing with a sudden influx of refugees the same way it helps states with emergency disaster relief.

*The Immigration and Naturalization Service deserves special attention to ensure it has adequate funding for officer training as well as for adequate computer and other technology. No INS officer should be placed on the inspection line at borders and airports until he or she has had at least as much training in immigration law as a State Department visa officer.

*Illegal immigration, especially from Mexico and Central America, cannot be dealt with solely by erecting fences and throwing more officers into patrolling the border. While such steps have their uses, the "push"

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factors of poverty and economic hardship must also be dealt with. This means continued, and perhaps even increased, forms of assistance to help develop the economies of our southern neighbors. Seen in this light, the rescue of the Mexican peso and NAFTA make even more sense.

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