Outside editorial: The next big thing

Posted: Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The following editorial appeared in the Chicago Tribune:

As the big showdown over health care unfolded on Capitol Hill on Sunday, tens of thousands rallied on the National Mall, trying to build momentum for the next big push. Their message: Barack Obama has been president for 14 months and our immigration system is still broken. What's he waiting for?

Immigrant advocacy groups met with Obama a little more than a week ago to remind him of his promise to overhaul the system, including forging a path to citizenship for the 11 million now living here illegally. Their message, punctuated by Sunday's meet-up, was not subtle: Get off the dime or lose the support of the growing Latino electorate.

We've long favored a comprehensive approach to immigration reform - one that ensures our borders are safe, our labor needs are met and our workplaces operate fairly and legally.

But Obama could be forgiven if he'd hoped to catch his breath before charging back into that battle. The last attempt to fix the system went down in flames in 2007, when the U.S. unemployment rate was less than 5 percent and employers were howling that they couldn't find enough workers. Even then, many Americans were openly hostile to the idea of legalizing those who'd broken the law to get here.

U.S. unemployment is now 9.7 percent. Everyone in Washington is battered and grumpy. Plenty of incumbents are feeling vulnerable in the next election, and the Latino vote isn't their only worry. So the hurry-up campaign could easily backfire. But days before the rally, two intrepid senators got the ball rolling anyway.

Sens. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., outlined their plan Thursday. It touches all the right bases and includes some adjustments meant to overcome some of the arguments that defeated the last bill. It ran into a buzz saw immediately.

"Allowing millions of illegal immigrants to stay and take jobs away from citizens is like giving a burglar a key to the house," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas. And Graham himself suggested Friday that hard feelings from the health care fight could squelch bipartisan efforts for immigration reform this year.

So: It's on. Highlights of the still unfinished Schumer-Graham proposal:

• Security: Continued emphasis on border security and interior enforcement, including a zero-tolerance policy for illegals who commit felonies.

• Workplace enforcement: Biometric Social Security cards so employers can verify the immigration status of workers. Increased penalties - including fines and prison time - for employers who hire illegal workers.

• Visas: Permanent resident status (green cards) for immigrants who earn high-tech degrees from U.S. universities. More flexibility to admit temporary workers for low-skill jobs as dictated by the needs of the economy. A tracking system to make sure temporary workers don't overstay their visas.

• Citizenship: A path to legalization for those who have been living and working here illegally. They'd have to pay fines and back taxes, perform community service, learn English, pass background checks and take their place in line.

The plan is still sketchy but has its flashpoints: Biometric Social Security cards spark concern over privacy and reliability. Earned citizenship is a lightning rod for those who say it rewards people for breaking the law. Others say the proposal doesn't do enough to address a backlog of pending visa applications.

Obama praised the senators for their leadership and promised "to do everything in my power to forge a bipartisan consensus this year." We've just had a good long look at how hard that will be.



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