I spent a few of my childhood years in the Columbia River Basin area of Washington state, where I first encountered folks who spoke a different language than I – many from Mexico, and quite a few from Laos. Many of my schoolmates were first generation legal immigrants, and their pride in becoming Americans, and that of their parents was profound. Likewise, their disdain for those who did not migrate through legal process or who overstayed their “Green Card” status was equally obvious. As a Montana born pre-teen lacking any cultural sophistication whatsoever, I was incapable of distinguishing one Spanish-speaking person from another. However, a sophisticated-beyond-her-years Mexican-American friend of mine informed me a clear distinction did exist: comprised of the “legal” versus the “illegal.”
America is now at a crossroads where illegal immigration must be addressed with some finality. The issue has been lingering unresolved for far too long. During the period of volitional avoidance of the issue, illegal immigration has become normalized, perhaps because our country has utterly failed to adequately fund and supply our border enforcement agencies with necessary personnel and equipment to limit illegal border crossings. We have shown by our failure to support border enforcement that the issue isn’t a priority. Simply, we caused the normalization of illegal immigration.
Lumping illegal immigrants into the same category as legal immigrants not only undermines the rule of law, but it patronizes the efforts of law-abiding immigrants, many of whom undertook a painstaking and necessary vetting process to become United States citizens. This is not to say that illegal immigrants and their children have not made contributions to our country, or that their plight in fleeing their home countries should be overlooked. It is time for a pragmatic approach, one that considers the gravity of the criminal offense combined with prioritization of border security. If the offense of illegal border crossing is a first offense, similar to other first offense crimes in the American justice system, restitution is the appropriate punishment. Restitution payments should fund Border Patrol and a wall where a physical barrier would be effective. Consistent with the tenets of our justice system, children should not be punished for the sins of their parents. And, in order to keep children from being ripped from the arms of their parents who crossed the border illegally with children in tow or later born, a path to citizenship should be available; a long and arduous path (much like a probationary sentence in our justice system), but a path nonetheless. If another criminal offense is committed by the person seeking citizenship, automatic deportation should occur. President Donald Trump’s immigration proposal contains these features, and at first blush, is both pragmatic and compassionate. I hope Congress agrees.
Tammi Fisher is an attorney and former mayor of Kalispell.