Outside editorial: It's time for serious immigration reform

Posted: Wednesday, March 07, 2007

This editorial appeared in the Fresno (Calif.) Bee:

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Recent round-ups in California's farm country have put the whole illegal immigration issue back on the front page. It's likely to keep showing up there until our elected leaders get serious about a solution - but don't hold your breath waiting for that to happen.

The politics of the immigration problem are daunting for both Democrats and Republicans in Congress, who are not, by their nature, especially courageous when it comes to tackling hard issues. Many conservatives shrink from anything that evens hints at that filthy word "amnesty," and many liberals are often focused entirely on body-slamming employers who hire people who are here illegally, ignoring other ramifications of the larger issue.

It might be an interesting exercise to take them both up on their pet notions: Round up all the illegal immigrants and deport them, and simultaneously jail anyone who's ever employed an illegal immigrant. That would have several consequences: a national economy in the tank, a political backlash from millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens who suddenly find themselves behind bars, and the subsequent defeat of every incumbent in the next national election.

Two of those outcomes would be unfortunate.

The whole immigration debate is soured by years of cliche and misinformation: Illegal immigrants are responsible for huge increases in crime; illegals suck up billions in welfare payments; it's all the fault of greedy employers; illegals depress wages; illegals take jobs away from fine, upstanding American citizens; they pay nothing in taxes.

None of that is true.

But illegal immigration is not without its pernicious effects. Schools are burdened by large numbers of immigrant children, who often move from one school to another several times during a school year. That puts huge pressures on teachers, administrators and facilities, and doesn't do much good for the kids, either.

Illegal immigrants, lacking even the possibility of health insurance, often wait until illnesses have progressed to drastic stages, and then show up at emergency rooms. Public money usually ends up paying for most of their expenses, a burden on all of us.

At the same time, most are working and paying taxes. They have Social Security taxes taken from their paychecks, with no hope of ever seeing benefits in return. They rarely seek any of the services they help pay for, fearful that doing so would expose them to apprehension and deportation. They risk having their families separated, as when illegal immigrant parents are torn from children who were born in this country.

In the meantime, the rest of us reap the benefits of their presence. They pick the crops, bus the tables and wash the dishes in restaurants, change the sheets in hotels and, increasingly, build the homes we live in. Their sole crime is that they crossed a border without the proper paperwork.

We can - and must - do better. President Bush has called for a rational approach that balances greater enforcement at the border with some mechanism for eventual legalization of immigrants in this country. That means some sort of temporary guest-worker program, with a clear and workable path to eventual legal residency and citizenship for those who qualify.

There is plenty to argue about in the details, but the general approach is not just sound, it's realistic - much more so than politically beguiling fantasies about employers behind bars and massive deportations.

The Senate passed a reasonable reform bill last year, but the House of Representatives, then in Republican hands, chose a more draconian approach, hoping that would pay off in the November elections. It backfired; several of the more hard-shelled Republican opponents of comprehensive immigration reform lost re-election bids.

But a Democrat-controlled Congress is no guarantee that reform is in the offing. Democrats are as capable as Republicans of grandstanding instead of acting wisely. That's how we came to have bipartisan support for such exercises as building an expensive border fence that would have little effect.

Enough of that. A serious effort is required to keep the nation's doors open without having them battered down. If our elected leaders can't summon the will and the wisdom to provide that effort, we ought to show them the door.

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