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Citizenship shouldn't be for sale

In our country, where almost everything's for sale for the right price, we are making it easy for rich foreigners to buy themselves a ticket to citizenship, and to cheat their new government in the process.

A recent audit by the Immigration and Naturalization Service details the predictable corruption of the foreign investor program, established by Congress in 1990, through which $1-million will buy you a green card.

Immigrants from Pacific Rim countries in particular are bending the rules, such as they are, and gaining coveted permanent residency without putting up the necessary dough.

Rather than just tightening the loopholes, Congress should reconsider this distasteful program in its entirety.

How mercenary can you get? American citizenship should not be up on the international auction block, available to the highest bidder. Citizenship is not a commodity; it's a privilege, one that is cheapened by being sold.

The immigrant-investor program was designed to compete with nations such as Canada and Australia, which actively entice rich foreigners to their shores with lax immigration rules. Congress also saw it as a way to bolster sagging rural and inner-city economies.

To qualify, immigrant-investors must put $1-million into a new commercial enterprise employing 10 or more people, or put $500,000 into an enterprise in a rural or high unemployment area. After two years, this buys them a green card, which is the first step to American citizenship.

But with the American economy humming along, with its record domestic investment and unemployment rates, there is no reason to retain this ledger-pass at our border.

Our government has an interest in granting residency to people who will not be a financial drain on the nation. But, as a matter of principle, that is where the balance sheet inquiry should end.

The immigrant-investor program makes up a very small portion _ less than 1 percent _ of American visas granted annually. But applications have surged in the last two years. Consulting companies have started promoting ways to obtain visas for foreign clients for a fraction of the legal investment requirements.

The New York Times reported that American consulate offices in Tokyo, Taipei, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Seoul found dozens of suspicious visa applications in which the investor puts up $150,000 in cash and the rest in a promissory note that would be forgiven after a green card is obtained. Because of these abuses, the agency has put a moratorium on new visas that rely on intricate and questionable financial packages.

The INS can close the loopholes, stiffen the requirements and scrutinize the applications more thoroughly, but that would only marginally improve a program that trades more on American greed than American dreams.

Emma Lazarus' Statue of Liberty inscription calls out to the world's "huddled masses yearning to breathe free." Congress' mercenary law makes breathing more expensive than Lazarus ever envisioned.