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Illegal immigration and citizenship issues
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Forsyth County News
The woes of the U.S. economy have had a major impact on reducing the nation’s concern with illegal immigration. Contraction of the job market seems to have encouraged many illegals (“undocumented aliens” to be politically correct) to return home. Simultaneously, with everyone’s attention directed to their own economic problems, other issues have been pushed to the background.

Several years ago, in addressing the high level of concern within the nation, I had facetiously proposed three sure-fire solutions to eliminating the issue. In many ways, they are consistent with the ways we often address problems -- define them out of existence.

The first was to annex Mexico, although the 100-plus million Mexicans who live there might not appreciate this solution and it just might create a few additional problems here. But, by definition, it would solve 70 percent of the problem, since none of the Mexican illegals would now be illegal.

The rest of the problem could be solved by opening our borders to anyone who wanted to come. The weight of the majority of the world’s population concentrated here would probably tip the globe so that the United States ends up where Antarctica is today, creating great distress among the penguin population.

A second solution would be to export more jobs from the U.S. to Mexico so Mexicans will stay home. But then what would Mexico do with all the illegals entering their country from the U.S.?

Finally, we could take draconian steps to round up and deport everyone. But then houses wouldn’t get built, lawns would get mowed, half the products would vanish from our supermarkets and eating out in restaurants would become a thing of the past.

Clearly, we have the ability and the talent to address the problems seriously. Then why don’t we? We have the capability to set up an identification and employment system, where legitimate jobs and legitimate alien applicants could be matched. We can establish a tracking system to address those cases where things went awry. High fines (including jail terms) could be imposed on employers who subvert the system. And rather than just a quick trip back home, those who chose the “illegal route” might find a few years of “hard time” working on public works projects prior to deportation as a significant deterrent to going outside of the system.

But all this deals with the future. Perhaps the most difficult issue of all is the fact that we already have a huge number of illegals here (estimated to be about 12 million in 2008). Many have been here for years and have made the U.S. their home. As a group, they have played significant roles in building various sectors of our economy. And many have children who were born here and, under current practices, are deemed to be U.S. citizens. Let’s look at this last issue before addressing the broader subject.

When the framers of the Constitution selected the language to be included, times were different. It’s hard to put oneself into a mind-set that existed more than two centuries ago. At that time, for example, there were no professional politicians, political parties, mass news media or even the Internet. Some words had different meanings. The intent of the language of the Second Amendment to the Constitution is the subject of fierce debate when it comes to “the right to bear arms.” The same is true with the language of the 14th Amendment, which came somewhat later, but is still subject to much ambiguity.

The key problem relates to the following statement: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States ... .” The issue revolves around the phrase “subject to the jurisdiction thereof.”

In many countries it has been commonly accepted that children born to diplomats, for example, are not subject to the jurisdiction of the country in which their parents happen to be serving and, in many countries (including the U.S.), are not accorded citizenship rights.

Here, because of the wording in the 14th Amendment, a special act of Congress (in 1924) was required to extend citizenship rights to American Indians. A serious question has been raised whether children born here to illegals (who are, in some senses, not subject to local jurisdiction) have the right to citizenship. Over the years, laws have been passed to interpret wording in the Constitution or extend the concepts beyond what is written. For example, section 301(c) of the Immigration and Nationality Act provides for citizenship to children born abroad to U.S. parents as happened in the case of my children when I was living in India.  

Resolving the question of granting citizenship to children born to illegals in the U.S. is one largely dependent upon emotion and values. On the one hand, it provides an incentive for illegals to enter the U.S. solely for the purpose of giving birth (with associated costs on the U.S. health system). On the other, we have always held sacred the concept of being born on U.S. soil. And the problems associated with sorting this one out and the hardships that would be created are substantial and very real.

How does one deal with all of the illegals who are already here, many of whom, under present interpretation, have children who are U.S. citizens? Very carefully, obviously! For better or worse, we pride ourselves on being a humanitarian nation. The idea of one rule fitting all goes against the American concept of justice. One should not deal with the drug runner or the gang leader in the same way as a hard-working parent just trying to build a better life for his or her family. Yet there are also questions of equity -- the people who follow the sanctioned, if slow, paths to green-card ownership and citizenship vs. those who try to leap ahead.

Compassion has to play large role in how we deal with the latter group -- identifying the individuals, looking at their individual situations, recognizing the contributions they are making to society (much as we fast-track those who serve in the armed forces) and providing ways to harmonize both their needs and those of the country.

It probably makes sense to establish at least three categories and treat them differently -- those who are disruptive or have nothing to contribute; those who are here temporarily, to fill current job openings, but should go home once those jobs no longer exist; and those who want to become a part of this nation, assimilate and contribute. We should never lose sight of the fact that this nation was built by immigrants -- that the many cultures that came together here enriched the country’s heritage, and that the hopes and aspirations and dreams of these immigrants made us the great nation that we are today.

Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Georgia and Arizona. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other Wednesday. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at