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My thoughts on illegal immigration
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Forsyth County News
We are a nation of immigrants. Except for roughly 2 percent of our population who claim Native American ancestry, virtually everyone else owes their citizenship to ancestors who had the courage to leave “the familiar” behind and venture into a new world full of unknowns. Over the years I have written many columns in praise of what they accomplished and how they built this great nation.

Their diversity proved to be one of our most valuable assets, creating a land that blended, not without problems, the best of many rich cultural heritages. Partly that was because most came to build a better life, escaping from economic, political and religious depravation. But there was also a self-selection mechanism at work, bringing people who were willing to take risks and who had confidence in the future. For most, one of the most important objectives was blending in and becoming citizens.

Recently, Arizona passed a “tough” law (1070) which, in essence, requires police organizations to enforce federal law when they have reasonable suspicion that the law is being violated. More recently, a federal judge blocked enforcement of provisions of that law. Among the major reasons she gave were a claim that enforcement of the law would burden federal resources and that barring illegal aliens from employment would violate federal law. The other elements behind her ruling focus on her opinion that only the federal government can enforce federal law.

I don’t get it. Is the federal government an entity unto itself? I thought the government existed to facilitate implementing the will of the people? When did enforcing the law become an unnecessary economic burden? Will only laws that have no economic consequences be enforced -- perhaps those where violators can be convinced to turn themselves in, voluntarily submit fines or lock themselves away from society under house arrest? Obviously, I am exaggerating -- but by how much?

The media focus has been fascinating. For most of the last few weeks, all we saw was sad stories about families pulling up their Arizona “roots” and heading for New Mexico, where, chances of being discovered might be substantially less. All the stories I saw were sympathetic to their plight and focused on the cruelty of the 1070.

I don’t get it. 1070 does not create new law. It just puts a few teeth in existing laws -- federal laws which are not being enforced. One of the points that seems to get lost in the political fray is the fact that non-enforcement, particularly in the border states, is creating severe economic and social problems -- probably the least of which relates to the vast majority of illegals who are coming here to do needed work, sending home much of their earnings (often paying into the social security system from which they will never collect) and planning, eventually to return home.

A more significant problem arises from those who are not productive and do not contribute, but do require health care, schooling and other services that burden communities that are already struggling to survive in tough economic times. Even more significant is the fact that this huge flow of people hides a small number who come for no good -- the gangs and the drug dealers. Worst of all, this constant stream provides diversion and camouflage for a small number who are hell-bent on destroying the country that immigrants have built -- members of al-Qaida and related organizations.

We are, supposedly, a nation of laws. This does not mean that laws govern everything we do. Instead it means that we have laws and a system, much of which dates back to early English common law, that establishes ways to maintain the values that society cherishes. It also means (and requires) that we respect those laws and that system. It’s far from a perfect system, but it works, probably more effectively than any other system in the world.

I am convinced that even the best law will not ensure fairness in every situation. Blind enforcement is efficient and politically expedient, but not always just. Compassion and consideration of special circumstances must enter into application of the law if justice is the aim. And if a law is unjust, we have ways of changing it, as long as the motivation is there. Somehow the motivation seems to be lacking here.

I’m not sure what the sympathetic outpouring for “displaced illegal aliens” and “alien rights” means. Do people feel the borders should just be thrown open to anyone, abolishing quotas, waiting periods and documentation? Perhaps a positive form of natural selection is also at work here. Anyone willing to swim the Rio Grande, for example, is a risk taker and a nation of risk-takers isn’t so bad. Again, I still don’t get it. But entire focus seems to be on the evils of enforcing a law rather than finding solutions.

I’d like to see a much different focus. First, there are real needs that can be satisfied by establishing systems well within our means (some of which are already in place). These would link employment needs and workers who want to do the job, provide for visas, monitor stays and impose severe penalties for those who violated the system. Second, we need to look at the current situation with compassion. We cannot turn back the clock. We have illegal aliens who have both spouses and children who are citizens. Enforcement of the law creates special hardships for them. We have others who have been here so many years, contributing to the nation, that wrenching them out of their roles would create substantial hardship for everyone. These are not easy situations to address, but the longer we wait, the larger the numbers will be and the more difficult the task.

My plea is be two-fold. First we have to put a stop to the illegal flows and restore order, and by so doing, make sure that all the economic and social consequences are factored in. Second, we need to find a compassionate way to address the plight of those who are already here. We are a nation of laws, but we are also a nation that has always placed great store in human values. Let’s forget politics and do what is right.

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