07/12/2011 05:22 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2011

Immigration: Opportunities, Not Moats

During his Iowa Family Leader address, Presidential hopeful Herman Cain solved the entirety of our country's immigration problems in one fell swoop.

"I just got back from China. Ever heard of the Great Wall of China? It looks pretty sturdy. And that sucker is real high. I think we can build one if we want to! We have put a man on the moon, we can build a fence!... It will be a twenty foot wall, barbed wire, electrified on the top, and on this side of the fence, I'll have that moat that President Obama talked about. And I would put those alligators in that moat!"

Who knew the answer to one of America's largest economic and social crises consisted of alligators and a "fence" modeled after a wall whose construction resulted in the estimated death of over one million Chinese workers? In response to the proposal, Somos Republicans, a national pro-immigration organization, called for Cain to remove himself from the Presidential race. Unfortunately, Cain's attitude towards immigration isn't unique amongst our country's lawmakers.

In June Alabama Governor Bentley signed anti-illegal immigration legislation modeled after Arizona's controversial SB 1070 into law. The ACLU denounced it as "draconian." The National Immigration Law Center's Linton Joaquin referred to it as "a sweeping attack on immigrants and people of color in general." And yet Alabama is fourth state in the union to pass such a measure.

Despite language in the law that police "may not consider race, religion, gender, ethnicity, or national origin," the practice will no doubt target brown skin and Hispanic accents. The language and culture of Hispanic Americans are part of our cultural landscape. Exposing longtime citizens to unjustified scrutiny implies that they don't belong in the land that their family may have inhabited for centuries. Not many white Canadian aliens will be stopped on suspicion of illegal residency, of that we can be fairly confident.

The CIA Factbook quotes 18.2 percent of Mexico's population as living under the poverty line. Many among those 20 million Mexicans must regularly choose between survival and illegal activity. Such situations change the risk calculation and the moral weight of daring jail, the perilous desert or armed minutemen in order for a chance at something better.

Once migrant workers arrive in America, they often work long hours in harsh conditions for little money. And despite paying federal taxes, they don't have access to public services except emergency rooms and K-12 education. And now they must face a growing trend of racial profiling.

These kinds of laws take us dangerously close to a police state without any kind of reasonable justification. With such a law in place a police officer could stop you for the legitimate but innocuous offense of jaywalking. And if this person is having a bad day, is prejudiced against you, or is just a jerk, you may be asked to show your identification. If you refuse or you forgot it at home, there is nothing to stop that officer from hauling you in until your citizenship can be verified. No matter how innocent you are there would be no recourse. For a political party that's so mistrustful about government power, Republicans should be outraged over this legislation.

Illegal immigrants risk a great deal to come to America, but do so to flee highly adverse circumstances. The threat of jail is nothing new, and it isn't enough to deter them. So far the only thing that has been able to curb the waves of migrant workers is the rise of better opportunities in Mexico. The billion plus dollars we are spending on a ridiculous wall to separate 2,000 miles of border territory would be better spent boosting the prospects of our neighbor to the South.

Just as creating opportunities in Mexico is a proven deterrent, less opportunity in the United States may also be a long-term deterrent. If we focused on financially penalizing businesses that employed illegal immigrants, instead of punishing the immigrants themselves, we might diminish the demand for jobs of which there is a seemingly never ending supply. Penalties can fund further efforts to invest in greater financial stability in Mexico as well, establish a reinforcing loop that will steadily diminish illegal border crossings over time.

With all the different ideas on the table to combat illegal immigration, one questions the motivations. But as a rule, it's not difficult to see which efforts spring from compassion and fairness, and which ones are driven by prejudice and fear. It's obvious that these new anti-immigration laws, and billion dollar fences, target the immigrants themselves who are our mostly darker colored skinned Southern neighbors, while letting often lighter skinned U.S. employers off the hook for economic gain. Compassionate alternatives include solutions that address the plight of Mexican workers and penalize those employers who perpetuate the problem here at home.

Solutions that can be used to focus on illegally acting employers, such as E-Verify, have their critics in an agricultural industry that worries about how strict enforcement will impact their ability to find laborers. If the pool of illegal workers is so essential to their livelihoods we need to enact a process that will make current workers legal at the same time we start stepping-up enforcement of incoming illegal immigrants. But to allow U.S. employers employ anyone without full protections and sometimes below minimum wage is to set aside the rules we painstakingly established for what labor rules are ethical. If we recognize humanity's basic equality we should not allow the continued exploitation of workers in our own country to persist.

These anti-immigration laws are immoral, ineffective and could leave our struggling economy in even worse shape. They discriminate against hardworking Americans. They hurt our concept of freedom. The only party they serve is the one that's grand and old and manipulating the fears of American voters. It's time we explored honest compassionate solutions in their place.