President Obama has bravely announced that he will push comprehensive immigration reform this year. He is fulfilling a campaign promise, and he is doing the right thing.

Opponents of the move are already upset about the timing of the announcement, arguing that a deep recession is no time to be taking steps that might make things even more difficult for those who have lost their jobs. According to this line of reasoning, jobs filled by undocumented immigrants could be given to unemployed Americans.


There is a central flaw to this argument. Those who will oppose the timing of the bill were also against it in 2007, before the economy went south, and they would be opposed to it at any other time. The issue is not timing; it’s illegal immigration itself. Opponents of a path to citizenship are a little like the main character in Dr. Seuss’ classic Green Eggs and Ham, who proclaimed, “I will not eat it on a plane, I will not eat it on a train.” There are absolutely no economic circumstances or conditions under which they would support a path to citizenship for the undocumented, not in a recession, a depression, a boom or a moderately strong or weak economy. They are against what they see as “amnesty.” One of their favorite polemics is “What part of illegal do you not understand?”


Therefore timing is not the issue, or unemployment, or the economy, or the state of our culture, or English language learning, or any other smoke screens that often blind us to the fundamental issue here: should a person who came here without documentation be allowed to stay?


The smoke screens are put into place because immigration becomes much more of a social justice issue when laid in its most bare terms. If we are to take our values seriously, and take the golden rule seriously, then we must admit that any of us might cross the border illegally in order to feed our families. I would, and I think you would too. I would obey the law once again after I broke the law to cross the border. I would work hard, and hope that my work ethic and family values would convince America to show compassion for my one illegal act.


The notion that a person should be defined by the committing of one victimless crime is silly because all but the most puritanical of us are guilty of some minor crime or another. Most people I know drank before they were 21, and most people I know speed in their cars on a fairly regular basis. Nobody thinks we should forever condemn someone for these misdemeanors. Our last three presidents have all admitted to using illegal drugs. Whatever one may think of them as presidents, the American public collectively decided that they deserved “amnesty” for their crimes, making them chief executive of all federal law.


As for those who insist that the issue is timing, here’s a modest proposal. We can attach an employment trigger to the bill. The undocumented will only be eligible for regularization once unemployment dips back down below say, 6.5 percent nationwide, or whatever the average unemployment level has been over the last 20 years. Then perhaps we can get to the heart of the matter in this debate.


Sean McKenzie, a Methodist, teaches high school in Calhoun, Ga.

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