Paquin: How to prove who’s legal, illegal

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In this political season, a lot of folks are getting all steamed up over illegal immigration, so I thought it might be helpful to bring a bit of fresh thinking to the subject.

Illegal immigration can take place two ways. One way is to run real quick across the border in a place where no one is looking. That seems to be the way most people think it happens.

But illegal immigration also happens another way. A non-citizen can cross the border at a border crossing point for a special purpose and a limited time, and then abandon his purpose and forget to leave. He (or she) becomes a permanent visitor.

I have crossed the border with Canada by car so many times that I know the routine by heart.

As you pass the U.S. border crossing point on your way out of the U.S., you can wave if you wish, but there’s no one looking at you. Then you slow down to enter a line of cars waiting for a Canadian border services official.

You observe that some of the cars have Canadian auto tags, and others have American tags. It seems to take a bit longer for the Canadians to go through. That’s probably because they are queried a bit more about what they bring back into the country and the possibility they owe Canadian tax on it.

When you reach the border crossing officer, you lower your driver’s side window, and without turning off your engine, you can say this as the officer glimpses at the inside of your vehicle:

“Good morning (or afternoon)! I am accompanied by my wife and we are both U.S. citizens. We are coming into Canada to visit relatives and are planning to stay five days before returning to the U.S. We bring no gifts having a value in excess of sixty dollars, and we have no alcohol, tobacco, firearms or illegal drugs.”

Whereupon the Canadian official may say, “You’ve answered all the questions I would have asked, have a pleasant stay.” After saying, “Thank you,” you press on the gas and go.

A more recent version of this has you handing your passports to the officer at the beginning of your monologue, and receiving them back, unstamped, after they have been scanned into a machine you cannot see.

Less experienced travelers wait for the officer to ask all the questions that would produce the information I provided above, and while a bit more time is consumed the result is the same.

Have you noticed something peculiar about what I stated here? Probably not yet, so we’ll come back to this in a minute.

Coming from Canada to the U.S. by car, the process is quite similar. Here’s the monologue you can engage in as you hand your passports to the officer:

“Good morning (or afternoon)! I am accompanied by my wife and we are both U.S. citizens. We are coming back from visiting relatives in Canada where we stayed five days. We are bringing back a few gifts with mostly sentimental value and merchandise worth about a hundred dollars, and we are bringing back no fruits, vegetables, meat, or other farm products.”

At that point, you may be asked a few questions about the items you acquired in Canada, but chances are the border official will be relieved to see someone so well prepared and will simply wish you a good day when returning your passports. You step on the gas and are on your way. (Just a thousand more miles until you reach Georgia!)

You can pretty much reverse this for Canadians coming into the U.S.

One question that may come into your mind is how many days can I tell the officer I’ll be in his country and still be let in. The answer for someone coming into the U.S. as a visitor from Canada is six months. Thus Canadian snowbirds can go spend the winter in Florida, all the while supporting the U.S. economy, with minimal border-crossing inconvenience.

You still have not noticed what is peculiar about this process, so I will relieve the suspense and tell you.

Many visiting tourists in this country are not given any papers showing they are in the country legally. They have nothing. Zilch. Nada.

So a Canadian tourist drives south through Georgia, on either I-75 or I-95, and for his impatience on being on the road for three days gets a speeding ticket. The arresting officer notices the foreign tag and the foreign driver’s license. Is the officer dealing with an illegal immigrant? How can he know? How can the motorist prove he is in the country legally?

So what’s the matter with the Arizona law making it a crime to be in the U.S. as an illegal immigrant?

How do you prove that you are not an illegal immigrant if you are clearly not a U.S. citizen, and even admit to it, if nobody will give you a simple document showing you are here legally?

The Arizona law, and any others like it, makes sense only if the federal or state government is willing and able to give everyone who is here legally, including citizens who may speak or look like they are “not from around here,” a convenient document (perhaps akin to a driver’s license) establishing their right to be here.

I think I am talking common sense, here, but I am not sure. A lot of people are opposed to our having national identity cards on the ground, I think, that it offends their dignity.

My dignity is offended every time I remove my shoes to go through airport security, but I am smart enough to understand we live in a modern age where my security is best assured by having the other guy remove his shoes. If the other guy’s security depends on my taking off my shoes, I consider it a fair trade.

All the huffing and puffing in the world about illegal immigration won’t do a bit of good in a world of people deprived of common sense. Until we get the equivalent of national identity cards, which I agree seems to bring us closer to a totalitarian state, laws like Arizona’s current law must be seen as deeply flawed and impractical.

Will you agree to our having, and carrying, national identity cards, or not? Think about it.

[A Fayette county resident, Claude Y. Paquin is a retired lawyer and actuary.]