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Our Views: Little fixes have to do
With Congress unlikely to agree on immigration reform, solution is to revise, enforce existing laws
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson

For a brief shining moment, there appeared a glimmer of hope that our courageous and wise leaders in Washington, D.C., would muster the will to patch up our cracked immigration system.

After years of lip service from both parties, only to see the effort wilt in the glaring political sun, the momentum seemed to favor reform succeeding this year. Republicans feeling the sting of losing nearly three-quarters of the Latino vote in last year’s presidential election seemed more willing to create a pathway to legal status for 11 million or so illegal immigrants living and working in the U.S.

A bipartisan Senate coalition, fronted by rising GOP star Marco

Rubio of Florida, pushed an immigration plan through by a 68-32 margin, calling for an improved guest worker program, an easier road to citizenship and greatly increased border security.

But once the doves found their perch and the rainbows faded, the party came to an end when the bill was boxed up and sent to the other side of the Capitol to its likely doom. House leaders say it’s a long shot at best, and it surely won’t look the same once they are done with it.

The reason for this is not so much substantive but political. Such was the case in the mid-2000s when President George W. Bush — the last national Republican to earn a big chunk of the Hispanic vote — attempted such reform, also with bipartisan support, but the GOP rank and file helped kill it. Since then, the political football hasn’t moved past the 50-yard-line.

It’s not hard to figure why. GOP leaders at the national level and senators elected statewide are more motivated to expand their support among the growing number of Latino voters who favor a more humane approach than building border fences.

But representatives chosen to the House from less-diverse gerrymandered districts don’t share that concern. Their voters are more willing to pay extra for produce or hotel maid service if it means keeping the lid on the number of illegal migrant workers in the U.S.

Many Republicans remain caught in the middle, torn between constituents who don’t favor looser standards and industries that depend on immigrant labor.

For their part, Democrats seem more eager to hold the issue as an election wedge than solve it, all but daring the GOP to scuttle it with an election looming. They have to appease their supporters in big labor, which opposes use of cheaper immigrant labor, while still playing the role of good cop to Latino voters whom they seem to take for granted.

As it is, the logistics of securing the nation’s 1,900-mile border with Mexico while finding a way to document 11 million people, many of whom have deep roots in the United States, is a nightmare. Add warring political factions, economics, xenophobia and the high cost of doing anything and it’s a Rubik’s Cube with too many colors.

So maybe it’s time to take a step back. Considering that members of Congress can’t screw in a light bulb these days, let’s assume the current immigration bill is likely to join its recent predecessors in the recycle bin. What then?

A writer to The Times summed up the answer succinctly in a recent letter: How about we just enforce the laws that are already in place?

Now there’s an idea worth considering.

Granted, those laws may need a tweak here and there to meet the current reality, but it may be that minor adjustments to immigration policy is the only feasible alternative to comprehensive reform. In other words, if we can’t agree on how to build Hoover Dam to stop the tide, let’s at least gather some sticks and slow the flow — preferably at the national level and not with the myriad state laws that often wind up overturned by the courts.

There are jobs to be filled and workers willing to fill them. What’s needed is a safe, legal process to connect the two so those 11 million can come out of the shadows and no one need risk their lives crossing the Rio Grande. But the illegal path is currently easier to negotiate than the legal one. That’s what needs fixing.

It starts with an improved guest worker program. The current H2A visa for agricultural workers is so wrapped up in regulation and red tape that no employer wants to jump through all those hoops. A more feasible guest worker plan must be put in place that both workers and their bosses will actually use.

Once that is in place, employers must make a greater effort to hire documented workers. The E-Verify database that Georgia and other states have required companies to use should be enforced, with more stringent penalties to discourage violators. Many now would rather pay the fines and keep the workers.

Then an effort should be made to unify law enforcement standards such as the 287(g) program used by Hall and other counties. There’s nothing wrong with turning lawbreakers over to the feds for deportation, if done to keep communities safe. Most agree that those who can’t obey the law become a burden on society. But that also means identifying true law breakers and not just picking up people for “looking Mexican.”

The border does need to be tightened, however best that can be accomplished. Nations have both a right and a responsibility to manage who can enter, so all methods should be considered and the right ones put into place. Hiring a legion of border patrol agents in numbers greater than the FBI seems excessive, but some degree of extra enforcement is justified. More high-tech options might be a better long-term solution.

President Barack Obama last year directed federal officials to cease deportation of young immigrants brought here as infants. Though a reasonable policy, we criticized him then for making an end run around the legislative process, still the preferred route. Even if changes are made via incremental steps, some kind of consensus is vital lest they be overturned by future elections.

And whatever the fate of immigration reform, enforcing current laws remains the responsibility of government and should not be suspended while a better outcome remains in limbo.

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