A bedrock premise of smart immigration reform is the sharp distinction it draws between criminal aliens and Americans-in-waiting. While it acknowledges that illegal immigrants need to get right with the law, it treats illegal status as a civil matter to be resolved by the machinery of naturalization, not by the police and prisons.
To hard-line opponents of legalization, illegal immigrants are irredeemable lawbreakers by definition, and the only thing they should be waiting for is deportation.
The administration’s job, as it works on a long-overdue reform bill next year, is to resist that view. So it was disheartening to hear Janet Napolitano, the homeland security secretary, boast recently about identifying “more than 111,000 criminal aliens” through a jailhouse fingerprinting program called Secure Communities.
That was misleading. The program, now in 95 cities or counties in 11 states, will ultimately require all local police agencies to check federal immigration databases for anyone after an arrest. It has so far identified a few thousand serious criminals, rapists and burglars, the kinds of people whose removal from the country must be part of any sane immigration strategy. But it also uncovered minor traffic infractions and visa violations.
It is easy to understand that the administration wants to sound as tough as possible as it gets ready to battle deep-seated resistance to real immigration reform. It is encouraging that Ms. Napolitano recently repeated the president’s insistence that a clear legalization path must be a pillar of reform. That makes it all the more important for the administration to avoid conflating illegal immigration and serious crime.
Laws must be enforced, but doing it this way hurts the innocent, creating a short line from Hispanic to immigrant to illegal to criminal. Having brown skin, speaking Spanish, seeming nervous in the presence of flashing police lights — none of those things say anything about whether you are here illegally or not, are deportable or not. But any one of them can be enough to get you pulled over in jurisdictions across the country.
In Arizona, it can get you jailed. We know of citizens whose homes were mistakenly raided by reckless federal agents on Long Island, day laborers who were targets of indiscriminate sweeps in California, and others who were singled out at roadblocks in upstate New York.
This hurts public safety. If you want to know the consequences of turning the police and jails into instruments of deportation, ask the law-enforcement officials who have complained about programs that muddy the line between local crime-fighting and federal enforcement, and make immigrants fear and shun the police.
President Obama has repeatedly assured 12 million illegal immigrants that he will fight to give them the chance to earn the right to stay. His administration should not undermine that noble effort by carelessly lending credibility to the view that the future citizens living and working among us are a class of criminals.