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Why don't they come legally? They can't

MIAMI -- After my last column criticizing Arizona's xenophobic immigration law, I got an avalanche of readers' comments. Most of them were angry anti-immigrant tirades, but some made important points that deserve an answer.

I won't waste readers' time responding to those that reek of racial prejudice. Instead, I will try to respond to some of the most common criticisms made by intelligent, well-meaning people whose arguments can't be dismissed as coming from the lunatic fringe.

Denise, who describes herself as a "white Anglo who has lived in Miami all my life" and wonders "how much longer I will be able to live in the town I grew up in," writes: "I am already a minority who is discriminated against and often feel that I live in a foreign country because of the huge population of Latins who insist on speaking Spanish.

"My question to you is, Why is it so awful for the citizens of the U.S. to simply ask immigrants who wish to live in America to do so legally? And why should we reward those who broke the law and came here illegally?" she asks.

"Maybe in your next article, you can address these questions."

Well, let me try. There are four major reasons I take issue with the premise behind the questions.

First, there would be nothing wrong with demanding that immigrants come to the U.S. legally if we allowed them to do so. But we don't -- they are coming through the back door to take jobs we offer them because we don't allow them in through the front door.

Legal immigration quotas were set more than 20 years ago, when the U.S. demand for unskilled and highly skilled workers was much smaller than it is today.

The U.S. labor market demands as many as 500,000 low-skilled workers a year, while the current U.S. immigration system allows for only 5,000 permanent visas for that category, according to the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration reform advocacy group.

"There is no real line for unskilled workers," said Maurice Belanger, the Forum's public information director. "If you are a Mexican wanting to get a legal visa to work as a waiter in the U.S., you would be dead before you get your visa."

It's somewhat easier to immigrate legally if you have close family members who are U.S. citizens, but often not by much. According to the latest U.S. State Department's visa bulletin, there is a lengthy backlog in several family visa application categories.

The U.S. government is now processing 1992 applications of Mexican adult children of U.S. citizens, and 1987 applications of Filipino brothers and sisters of U.S. citizens.

"Many people think we have good laws and bad people who are breaking them," said Frank Sharry, head of America's Voice, a pro-immigration reform advocacy group. "But we have bad laws and mostly good people who have no line to get into legally."

Second, deporting up to 10 million undocumented residents would be incredibly costly and impossible to carry out unless we turn the U.S. into a police state. For national security and law enforcement reasons, it would be much better to know who they are, where they live and to subject them to a series of steps -- learning English and paying taxes, i.e. -- to regularize their status.

Third, I don't like to use the word "illegals" as a noun because it's aimed at dehumanizing what for the most part are good, hard-working people.

Yes, they broke the rules. But U.S. citizens who drive through a red light also break the rules -- in fact, causing much more potential harm -- and that shouldn't turn them into "illegal" human beings.

Fourth, I don't think people should be overly alarmed by the fact that many Hispanic immigrants don't speak English. They may not, but their children will. And if their children end up being bilingual, so much the better. In an increasingly competitive global economy, the U.S. badly needs more bilingual people.

In conclusion, Denise, we have a dysfunctional immigration system. Employers are hiring undocumented immigrants to do jobs Americans won't do, while the U.S. government provides these immigrants with no realistic chance to get legal visas.

Perhaps, you and I will agree that it's a perverse system that needs comprehensive reform.

Oppenheimer covers Latin America for the Miami Herald.