Immigration reform, yes. Driver’s licenses, no.

People call them either “illegal” or “undocumented” immigrants, depending on how much they resent them. Both terms are flawed. “Undocumented” soft-pedals the seriousness of the matter, making it sound like someone just lost their documents. “Illegal” suggests the person could easily have immigrated legally, glossing over how broken the U.S. immigration system is, how mixed the messages are from different aspects of the U.S. government — as well as from U.S. employers and Americans in general — and how our country has restricted some its legal immigration pathways.

The Enterprise followed the Associated Press Stylebook when it switched the preferred term from “illegal” to “undocumented” a few years ago, but now both words are politically loaded: Whichever we use, we take fire from people of one party or the other. It’s a tight spot for journalists, who need a neutral term. Please bear with us.

The reason Americans have a problem with this terminology is that we have a problem with widely different views on immigration. To fix that, hearts, minds and laws need to change.

Ideally, Americans would welcome newcomers and also have a sensible, adequate process for admitting them. But our process is far from adequate or sensible, and many Americans’ attitudes are far from welcoming — something President Donald Trump has capitalized on and used to widen the gap.

Progressives tend to side with migrants and favor actions like giving them driver’s licenses, college tuition aid and other benefits, which is welcoming but not necessarily wise. Just stamping something unofficial as official will create bugs in the system down the line. We need to fix the system first.

Some say we should support legal immigration rather than enabling the illegal. Well, yes. Who wouldn’t prefer that immigrants come here through the proper channels? The problem is that those proper channels either have been restricted to the point of being too narrow for the need, are dysfunctional or have been intentionally closed. We need to open them up, fairly and in a way that leads people to seek citizenship — membership in this great nation of ours.

Recent news about the U.S.’s declining birth rate makes now as good a time as any to be more welcoming to future citizens.

With the recent wave of migrants from Central America, for example, the bulk of them have been going to official border checkpoints and asking for asylum — a legal means of immigrating to this country for those who show up without applying in advance. Cubans get in automatically due to the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, but other asylum seekers can be deported if they can’t prove they have a credible fear of being persecuted, tortured or killed in their home countries. That’s quite a process, and our government apparatus at the southern border is only equipped to process so many cases at once. But the danger to these migrants is real: The gang situation in some Central American counties is so severe that people clearly would fear for their lives if they went back.

Last year, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions said these people should have applied for visas from their homes ahead of time, but that’s easier said than done. The process is lengthy and expensive and full of roadblocks. If you don’t have a sponsor — either a family member in the U.S. legally or an employer willing to shell out thousands of dollars, wait years and prove hiring you wouldn’t displace an American worker — then the door is mostly closed to you. And even if you qualify, it could take thousands of dollars, plenty of bureaucratic hassle and several years of waiting, due to quotas and bureaucratic wormholes.

With so many asylum seekers, many are allowed in and given court dates, at which they do not appear. Many employers welcome them, and they manage to live productive lives — but have to keep their heads down.

The Trump administration has also severely restricted the refugee program, which is in someways the most important immigration program the U.S. has. Like the asylum program, it is for people who need it most, and thus is a way for our country to show its character. The refugees don’t even choose to come here; that selection is done by the United Nations High Council for Refugees. The process requires lengthy vetting in another country of more than a year.

Those, like Trump, who say admitting immigrants leads to spikes in crime are wrong. Numerous studies show that in the U.S., at least, immigrants are no more likely to commit crimes than average Americans. When Trump shut down the refugee program, it had no effect on crime statistics in U.S. cities with larger numbers of refugees.

We are not in favor of giving drivers licenses to people who are in this country without permission. Their status should be rectified first.

We’re still learning about Trump’s new immigration plan, which would approve people based more on job skills than family ties. We approach it skeptically based on his past anti-immigrant rabble rousing and on the fact that this plan was crafted not by the Department of Homeland Security but by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his anti-immigrant advisor Stephen Miller. Nevertheless, we haven’t yet formed an opinion on it.

Overall, we favor reconfiguring the U.S. immigration system to allow more legal immigration, within reasonable limits and with a reasonable process that isn’t so easily overwhelmed.

We also favor pathways for illegal/undocumented immigrants here now to become citizens. Those who came here as children — “dreamers” — should certainly qualify. Those who settled here unofficially as adults should have to repay society, either in cash or community service, for breaking the law, but making them tromp back to their home countries and reapply serves no purpose.

There are too many people in the darkness at the edge of American society, and they are easily abused. Many want to come into the light and be legal contributors to public life. The tangle of U.S. immigration policies and employers welcoming workers without documents has kept a lot of good people on the margins.

We need to balance mercy and justice.

But putting driver’s licenses before immigration reform is like putting the proverbial cart before the horse. It’s not going to get us where we need to go and will create more problems.


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