This story might have gotten missed in all the furor over the health care debate and other issues: President Barack Obama announced a few weeks ago on a trip to Mexico that any attempt at immigration reform is going to remain on the back burner until next year as the president and Congress tackle more pressing issues.
A week later, the president backed off a bit when his announced delay came under fire from immigration groups. He then said he would push Congress into action this year, even as they continue to deal with the economy, health care and other immediate concerns.
"We have a broken immigration system. Nobody denies it," Obama said.
That’s welcome news. As members of a community that has been on the front lines of the immigration debate, we believe it is long overdue for the federal government to be more proactive in solving the issue. As a result, attempts to take on illegal immigration via state and local laws has only served to push the problem along to someone else’s jurisdiction rather than actually solve it. If there is one thing warring factions on both sides of the debate can agree on, it is that the federal government is responsible for our illegal immigration problem, and any lasting solution to fix it needs to come from Washington, D.C.
What’s more, the problem of illegal immigration is part of the nation’s overall economic picture, and has an effect on health reform as well. All are linked and need to be tackled with an integrated approach.
Unfortunately, the political will to do so has long since faded. A comprehensive immigration reform plan introduced by moderate Democrats and Republicans a few years back, and supported by the Bush Administration, went nowhere. It was attacked from the right and left, mostly the right, as being too lenient on illegal workers who already are here and less focused on tightening the borders. GOP members of Congress who initially supported it got an earful from the folks back home and abandoned the bill, and with it any attempt at a national solution.
But that doesn’t mean they should stop trying. Immigration has become the new third rail that no one wants to touch, largely because any attempt to deal humanely but responsibly with the 12 million or more illegal workers in the U.S. is met with strong opposition from one side or the other.
Obama has expressed support for the kind of plan backed by Bush and others: Tighter border security to keep new migrant workers out, plus a path toward legal status for those already here. Though the details may vary, most involve requiring some degree of effort for workers to become legal, well short of outright amnesty. Obama has indicated, for example, that illegal workers should go to the back of the line, pay a fine and provide the proper documentation before returning to the U.S. to work.
It is everyone’s interest to develop such a plan. U.S. industries need the labor force; even in a tough economy with high unemployment numbers, filling many low-salaried, low-skilled jobs is difficult. Positions such as hotel maids, construction workers, landscapers and the like are more attractive to migrant workers than to most American-born laborers. It has been pointed out, in fact, that without immigrant labor available to pick farm produce, our potatoes, peaches and onions are going to cost us a lot more at the supermarket.
But the path to legal status doesn’t have to mean amnesty. It should be a mutually beneficial contract that provides U.S. industry with an available work force while providing poor immigrants from other nations a chance to earn a better living for their families. There is a way to do this without opening the borders to anyone who wants to cross, yet without treating immigrant workers like unwelcome invaders.
That’s where the humanitarian side of immigration reform needs to come in. Those who come here to work are, by and large, hard-working, law-abiding people who don’t take public assistance or get into trouble with the law. Those who do should be sent home quickly. But the majority of those who only seek to work and earn a living should be given a chance within a common-sense legal framework.
To reach a consensus, we need to turn loose of preconceived notions driven by distrust. For instance, anecdotal tales of illegal residents filling hospital emergency rooms or welfare offices are hard to quantify; how does anyone know which people they see there are illegal? Such claims seldom are supported by facts and only serve to stir up resentment.
Others cite gang problems as a deterrent to welcoming immigrants, but as our recent coverage revealed, most gang members actually are U.S. citizens and not border crossers looking for work. The majority of local gang members migrated from other states like California or Texas, not Mexico or Guatemala. But the stereotypes persist.
Fair-minded people can argue the particulars of an immigration plan and debate how tough or lenient it should be. But the debate needs to begin so we can move closer to a solution. No one here believes this is a problem the federal government can continue to put off without making the situation worse for all concerned.
We’re glad to hear that the president has come around to that conclusion, and we look forward to a productive debate on the issue in Congress this fall.