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We can't just say no to immigration reform

July 15, 2007 12:35 am

IF YOU HAVE an im- migration plan that Americans could agree on, the president and the U.S. Congress would like to hear from you.

Good luck coming up with one. It would need to satisfy Americans ranging from those committed to welcoming more of "your tired, your poor" to the melting pot, to those who object primarily to the economic burden, to those who are mired in prejudice and hypocrisy.

A couple of weeks ago, the U.S. Senate killed an immigration measure that was supported by President Bush and a bipartisan consortium in Congress. It would have beefed up border patrols. It would have cracked down on employers of illegal immigrants. It would have put some 12 million illegals on the road to citizenship--a plan that opponents labeled "amnesty." A new policy for "guest workers" would keep track of immigrants who come here to work for tax-collection purposes.

It is a rare bill that faces opposition so vehement from both the left and right that a bipartisan compromise ends in failure.

I actually empathize with President Bush on this one. As a Texas rancher he probably understands the issue's importance and divisiveness as well as anyone. He demonstrated leadership and bridged the partisan divide, bringing together congressional friends and foes who would begin to solve what may be the nation's most pressing domestic issue.

He thought he might have a victory to celebrate. But he was wrong. Though it was primarily the president's own party that doomed the bill, the voting lines were more geographic than partisan. States accustomed to, or less affected by, immigration favored the legislation; states with new and burgeoning immigrant populations were adamantly against it.

So we are left with the status quo--the same illogical, unworkable, and expensive policies that have brought emotions on the issue to the boiling point. The disagreements that stymied the Senate reflect those embodied by the nation as a whole.

As the legislation's supporters invited--even begged for--proposals with more palatable language and amendments, opponents had nothing to offer. Appeasement isn't possible when communication has broken down.

Of the many elements to the immigration debate, here are some that I find particularly interesting:

Georgia, with its exploding immigrant population, was a hotbed of opposition to the legislation. Many Georgians are feeling overrun by immigrants and objected to a policy that would have legalized the status of millions of illegals already in the country.

But in Georgia and other big poultry states, Mexicans are the ones who do the most menial, filthy, and physically demanding jobs in the poultry processing industry. Many Georgians who opposed the legislation include those who make their livings, directly or indirectly, in a poultry-based economy. They wouldn't in a million years do the nasty jobs that immigrant labor does. But they can't stand living in the same neighborhoods or shopping in the same stores that the immigrants do. They are put off by all those Spanish speakers and their strange customs.

Do they expect Scotty to beam illegals back to their homelands at the end of the workday?

Isn't there a striking similarity to the ancestral stories of many Americans? Many came to this country penniless, but filled with hope for a better life. They worked long hours for low wages, lived in poor conditions, and saved what they could to build a better future for their families and children.

The big difference, and it is a valid one, is that most of those earlier immigrants were documented as they reached the nation's shores, rather than sneaking in illegally. But legislation to provide a path to legal residency and citizenship, to allay the fears of deportation that cause these immigrants to risk their illegal status, is voted down in Congress.

Maybe some people just don't like immigrants, legal or illegal.

Many white Americans who live in communities experiencing an influx of immigrants--Mexicans in particular--are fleeing those communities, saying they've become slums.

That sounds to me like white flight from inner cities in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, which I experienced firsthand growing up in Baltimore. In response that obvious comparison, Sen. David Vitter, Louisiana Republican, said: "To suggest this was about racism is the height of ugliness and arrogance."

How about, to some degree, the height of truth?

Now here's a point I particularly like: We have spent billions on the war in Iraq, determined to stuff our way of life down the throats of a nation full of disparate people and beliefs.

But bordering our nation to the south is a country whose residents love us so much that millions will do whatever it takes to live here.

U.S. and Mexican officials need to redouble their efforts to raise Mexico's standard of living and diversify its economy. If there were enough decent jobs and the Mexicans who flee instead wanted to live there, then they wouldn't need to come to the United States to pursue the American Dream.

To those whose letters, phone calls, and lobbying efforts defeated the immigration bill: The ball's in your court. Your proposal is eagerly awaited.

But don't bother with the same old plan for just more walls, fences, and border patrols, or for rounding up illegals for deportation. Sealing off America isn't the American way--and it doesn't work.

Richard Amrhine is a writer and editor with The Free Lance-Star.



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