A simple and fair solution for illegal immigration

The history of U.S. immigration law is a story of enforcement — whether, when, who and by what standards. Active enforcement of the Immigration and Nationality Act has varied greatly, particularly in recent decades, while reform has eluded consensus and congressional action.

Whether enforcement is stern and unforgiving, even to inadvertent immigrant children, or with a more forgiving attitude toward fellow human beings, it ought to be done fairly. It is often hard to see justice in the decisions that allow one person to stay and snatch another from his or her family.

The law needs to be enforced fairly, and for that to happen, it must be a fair and effective law.

For those reasons The Day likes the suggestion of Robert Kim Bingham of Salem, a veteran attorney with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who is re-proposing an idea he floated during his 37-year career.

Bingham's long familiarity with the Immigration and Nationality Act and one out-of-date aspect in particular, Section 249, has prompted him to suggest that Congress move up — not for the first time — the date that applies to the legalization process for undocumented immigrants who have been leading fruitful, law-abiding lives in the United States for more than a decade.

The last update was under President Ronald Reagan in 1984. At that time Congress set the backward-ticking clock for counting up 10 years of worthy behavior back to 1972.

If, as Bingham suggests, the beginning date were re-set to 2005 or even 2007, it would provide a way toward legal resident status for young people brought here illegally as babies and children. Many are now teenagers and young adults who remember no other homeland. Since 2012 they have been eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Under that program they pay a fee of $495, are fingerprinted and photographed and get a two-year DACA identification card. The program documents them and gives them short-term status.

Resetting the date to 10 or 12 years ago would also provide a way for older immigrants who arrived here after 1972 to apply for legalization.

Amendment of the Section 249 date would of course mean that Congress and the president, if he signed it into law, were open to legalizing a generation of immigrants whom some politicans are bent on sending away. And it would mean legitimizing young people who are here because of the forbearance of the Obama administration. The diametrically different approach of the Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress may well doom even a discussion of Bingham's concept.

That may even be why he has had no response to his idea from the state's Congressional delegation except for Sen. Chris Murphy, who said he'd be willing to consider anything that leads to a fairer, safer immigration system. Rep. Joe Courtney's staff is to meet with Bingham this week.

For the idea to have any chance of serious consideration, it would mean a willingness to consider individual cases on their merits, which is what the law and individual immigration hearings were meant to do. It's much easier to dismiss people as a category than as individuals with names, faces, schooling and employment history. Note the reaction in many communities to recent ICE enforcement against a popular restaurateur or against neighbors with small children who were born here.

Like it or not, the law as written is being enforced. A community-minded, established business owner has no more right to be here than any other undocumented person, and no standing to prove his or her contributions to American society. As Bingham points out, Section 249, as written, has virtually lost its effectiveness.

That was not true under President Reagan and other chief executives, and it doesn't have to be true now. Rather than the confrontational approach taken by President Trump and Congressional Republicans, amend Section 249 to give immigrants today the same chance to prove they deserve legal permanent residency.

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, Managing Editor Tim Cotter, Staff Writer Julia Bergman and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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