A reality adventure for Congress

By Rosa Brooks Published:

By Rosa Brooks

Heres an idea for a reality TV show. Call it Aliens. The contestants will be drawn from the U.S. Congress.

To start, theyll have their credit cards, cellphones, computers and cars confiscated. Next, theyll be sent -- with their families -- to live in rural villages and urban shantytowns in poor countries. Each will be assigned a menial job in his new home, for which he will receive a dollar a day.

Most members of Congress wont last more than a few episodes, of course. Their kids will quickly lose the baby fat that comes from a hearty American diet and instead gain the bloated tummies that characterize children with nutritional deficiencies. This development will frighten off the faint of heart.

The remaining contestants will be given the opportunity to compete in an even tougher game. Theyll be instructed to make their way to a distant country, but they wont be provided with money, a passport or transportation. Hardships along the route will include fording flood-prone rivers, crossing dangerous deserts on foot and evading the armed gangs of smugglers and traffickers who will attempt to rob, rape and kidnap them.

Contestants will then have to covertly cross a border into a country guarded by armed agents.

Those who make it will then have to find food, shelter and employment in a place where they dont know the language and are in constant danger of being detected, detained and deported by the authorities. The only jobs available to them will be low-paying and often backbreaking labor.

Whats the prize, you ask? Any contestants who manage to survive a full season will be offered the opportunity to draft a new immigration reform bill for the United States.

Aliens would have an enormous natural audience among the two-thirds of Americans polled who disapprove of Congress job performance. And one things for sure: The resulting immigration reform bill would look nothing like the reform bill under consideration in Congress.

Both House and Senate versions of the bill share the same punitive spirit. At the moment, being in the U.S. unlawfully is a civil violation, not a crime. But current versions of the bill would make it a felony, resulting in possible prison time as well as deportation. Both versions of the bill would criminalize many forms of humanitarian assistance to illegal immigrants. The House version, for instance, makes it a felony for anyone to assist an unlawful immigrant to reside or remain in the U.S. This means that a church volunteer who serves hot meals to illegal immigrants could end up in prison.

Such punitive provisions are mean-spirited and foolish. But many of our elected leaders are so busy measuring the border for a new barbed-wire fence that they never stop to seriously consider alternatives to cracking down on illegal immigration.

Heres a radical idea: Instead of spending the $206 billion the Center for American Progress estimates it would take to implement a five-year policy designed to detect, prosecute, imprison and deport people found here unlawfully, what if the U.S. stopped trying to punish all illegal immigrants?

We need border security, and we should take action against any person whose behavior poses a serious threat to public safety. But theres no need to be so punitive toward the ordinary economic migrants who find their way into the U.S.

Although most people assume that any slackening in efforts to enforce immigration laws would lead to a rapid influx of illegal immigrants and damage the U.S. economy, theres little reason to believe this would happen.

Look at the European Unions recent experience. After poorer Eastern European states were admitted to the EU in 2004, many Western Europeans feared an influx of cheap labor that would push local workers out of jobs. But the evidence suggests the xenophobes got it backward.

In February, the European Commission released a study concluding that far fewer Eastern Europeans than expected had sought jobs in the three EU member states -- Britain, Ireland and Sweden -- that have completely opened their labor markets. These three states mainly saw positive effects of increased immigration from Eastern Europe, including high economic growth, a drop of unemployment and a rise of employment.

Even when it means facing hardship, most people prefer to remain in their home countries, surrounded by family and compatriots who share their language and culture. Those desperate and courageous enough to leave in search of a better life far away are the exception, not the rule.

And our economy benefits from their presence. As the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has pointed out, illegal immigrants are working hard and performing tasks that most Americans take for granted but wont do themselves.

As far as Im concerned, anyone brave and determined enough to walk here from Guatemala deserves admiration, not hostility.

Special to the Los Angeles Times

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