Amnesty and the American Way

It's not an easy argument to make: The suggestion that people who have committed a crime -- no matter how harmless -- should be forgiven or even rewarded for their transgression.

At its core, this is the issue surrounding a controversial proposal to grant "amnesty" to the millions of undocumented immigrants now believed to be living in the United States.

To some, amnesty is a fancy way of saying, "It's okay, if you broke our immigration laws, so long as you've been an upstanding member of our community and you promise to be an exemplary American citizen."

Sounds like a pretty sweet deal. Although it wouldn't be the first time our government has granted amnesty to so many unauthorized foreign visitors. The last time it happened was under then-President Ronald Reagan and the Democratically controlled Congress in 1986.

Amnesty supporters today are up against President Bush's immigrant-friendly but hollow rhetoric, as well as right-wing xenophobes who believe that the so-called American way of life is being threatened foreigners.

The most extreme elements in the anti-amnesty movement actually believe that Mexicans are plotting to retake control of the American Southwest. Most Mexico watchers, however, know that Mexican President Vicente Fox has far more pressing matters on his mind -- like feeding and educating his nation's growing population.

National polls, meanwhile, show that a majority of Americans oppose amnesty for illegal immigrants. No surprise there. We expect people to obey the law.

What the poll results do not show is that the only crime most of these migrants have committed is the relatively minor, civil offense of having entered the United States without proper documentation. In other words, they didn't fill out the proper forms and wait in line until their number was called.

But before we judge them too harshly, we should remember that under our system of justice the severity of a crime also is determined by the intent of the person committing that crime. For instance, we don't treat an armed burglar who steals our jewelry in the same way that we treat a homeless family who crawls into our garage to escape the freezing winter cold.

Taking that analogy one step further, the overwhelming majority of undocumented immigrants come to the United States not to deny us our way of life, but to actually preserve it. Most simply seek an honest day's work and safe shelter. As such, they deserve to be treated with respect and human decency, not, as they often are, as common criminals.

Who are these people who've come to us asking for amnesty? Typically, they have been our neighbors for years. Some have been in the United States for 20 years or more. And with very few exceptions, they have been lifelong, law abiding taxpayers -- many of them contributing far more to our economic system than they use in public services.

So now after many years -- in some cases decades -- America's undocumented immigrants come to us seeking amnesty.

Given how long we've allowed them to wash our dishes, care for our children, mow our lawns, build our homes, clean our hotel rooms and harvest our fruits and vegetables, I'd grant them forgiveness. How about you?

James Garcia is editor and publisher of E-mail the writer at

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