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Rethinking immigration

While other employers are agonizing over layoffs, the Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) is planning to increase its work force by almost 1,200. The agency will need at least that many additions to make the 1-million arrests expected this year, and to dig out from under the overflow of residency applications and pleas for asylum.

Far from reassuring, the announcement triggers alarms. Just as more prison beds won't heal a society made desperate by crime, more bureaucracy and enforcement at INS won't halt the flow of refugees and immigrants desperate to get in.

The ongoing struggle over the fate of some 10,000 Haitian refugees highlights the confused state of U.S. immigration policy. Then there are the Mexicans, a prime focus of INS attention. American companies are eager to build factories on their soil, where they will be paid a fraction of the wages commanded by U.S. workers. Not surprisingly, large numbers of them would rather work here.

Guidelines that seem clear on paper dissolve into vagaries under real world conditions: Who should be allowed to stay, and why? What divides economic from political refugees? Who should determine when repatriation is tantamount to a death sentence, and by what criteria?

People so routinely risk their lives to reach America that those who are U.S. citizens by birthright barely notice. When they do, the trials of immigrants reinforce an inherited belief that no price is too high for the privilege of living and working here. For Americans, immigration has always been a risky business, driven by hunger, fear of persecution and, almost always, economic limits at home. Those who came as slaves prevailed against the most cruel hardships of all, not just in passage but for generations thereafter.

The America that once courted immigrant labor is now overwhelmed by recession, high unemployment, inadequate housing and a shortage of basic services. Meanwhile, immigrants are drawn here for the same old reasons _ war, famine, the dream of a better life. It might seem easier, at least for now, to simply hire more guards and bureaucrats to keep them away. That isn't what America is about though. Or is it?

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