Saturday, September 17, 2011

A fresh start in immigration law

Image of Constitution, overlaid on photo by Kalyan Chakravarthy. Licensed via Creative Commons.

Today, September 17, is Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, and that means we are celebrating fresh starts.

The Constitution itself is our country's fresh start in the structure of its self-government.  The Constitution is a do-over, a new beginning.

In the very same sentence of one corner of the Constitution, Congress is given the power to handle two kinds of new beginnings, the kind of fresh start ordinary people sometimes need: new citizenship, and bankruptcy:
The Congress shall have power...To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;
A friend of mine described this citizenship-and-bankruptcy sentence in the Constitution as the "Fresh Start Clause."

As we know, bankruptcy law is the process of stripping away financial obligations that a person hasn't met - obligations that have become so impossible to meet that a legal reset is better than the alternative, for everyone involved. The reset comes with a new set of conditions but not the same ones that the person was supposed to have met in the first place.

Immigration law, in contrast, doesn't have a bankruptcy-like process of leaving behind unmet obligations and creating new ones. There is no reset for prospective citizens with American lives and histories. No practical and reasonable set of new conditions for those who are stuck with the impossible consequences of immigration mistakes. This is despite the fact that these homeowners, job holders, business owners, students, and family members now have long records of good, America-friendly behavior, like economic activity and neighborhood relationships, that would have been impossible to prove before they came here.

Let's take advantage of what we have and not what we wish we had. Let's embrace would-be Americans with the full force of law by setting up screenings and new rules to follow, taking away certain rights while sunsetting old ones. Use bankruptcy law as a template for this part of immigration solution.

The Fresh Start Clause of the Constitution is the Founders' acknowledgement that doing it right the first time isn't the only American way. Sometimes we get it wrong and find a new way to make it right.

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