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What would comprehensive immigration reform look like if the Feds got off their duffs?

Thursday, Dec 23 2010

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The urgent need for national immigration reform is uniting what otherwise might be strange bedfellows. In April when Arizona passed SB 1070, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce went to court against it, arm in arm with one of the country's most powerful unions, the Service Employees International Union.

And it's not just interest groups and factions who favor a resolution that does not involve mass deportation. Opinion polls have found strong support — in the 80 percent range — for controlling the borders and integrating the immigrants already here into lawful society. Mass expulsion, whether by deportation or harassment, is in the approval ratings basement, at more like 25 percent.

In spite of all that, the advocates of integration are foxholing for a bitter fight in which they admit their best hope is to stave off a surge for mass expulsion when the new Congress sits next year, given its anticipated tenor after the full effect of the mid-term elections takes hold in January.

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Before the midterms changed everything, the aims of moderates came down to four things, all expressed in bills introduced but not passed in the last session of Congress by Senators Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina; Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey; and Charles Schumer, Democrat of New York.

First, the moderate reformers were seeking and still want real workplace enforcement so that employers will not be able to hire people who have not signed up for legal residence.

Second, advocates want serious enforcement of entry laws at the border and away from the border, with focus on the horrors of human trafficking. As it is now, even when the coyotes who smuggle immigrants in across the southern border do get caught, they receive get-of-jail-free cards from U.S. Immigration Enforcement, which quickly deports all of the key witnesses. On November 11, Village Voice Media revealed that a Colorado crackdown on traffickers had produced only 87 indictments since an anti-human-smuggling law was passed in 2006. The vast majority of those cases ultimately were dismissed for lack of evidence.

But it's not all about illegal crossers. The third plank in the reform platform is a call for a good way into the country for legal immigrants — a pragmatic guest-worker program that meets the needs of industry, a rational visa system for highly qualified sought-after immigrants.

Last and not at all least, people seeking comprehensive immigration reform want to create a path to full, legal, taxpaying status and accountability for the law-abiding majority of the 11.1 million people estimated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to be in the country without proper authorization.

The Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research group, estimates that 60 percent of the 11.1 million are from Mexico, another 20 percent from other Latin-American countries.

Think of the essential piece in making it all work as a coin. First side: Give people an incentive to come out of the shadows and sign up for citizenship. Second side: Create a bulletproof ID system to show who has signed up and who has not. The Schumer bill, in particular, calls for a high-tech Social Security card with a computer chip that can't be faked.

But these kinds of solutions — perhaps because they are pragmatic and wonkish — are all the more infuriating to people like Riddle who regard the presence of the undocumented as a call to arms, not a call for more computer chips.

In the recent midterm congressional election, anti-immigration forces sang a song with two verses — immigrants are crooks, America is for Americans. Candidates including Governor Jan Brewer; Sharon Angle, the Republican who ran unsuccessfully for Senate from Nevada; and Tom Tancredo, an independent who was defeated in a bid to become governor of Colorado, portrayed undocumented aliens as criminals.

Together they worked to bond permanently any form of legal status for undocumented people with the term, "amnesty." Amnesty — a kinder, gentler word under Ronald Reagan — was used in the midterm campaigns to mean letting dangerous criminals off scot-free. And, put that way, nobody likes the idea. Instead, having defined unauthorized immigrants as crooks, the advocates of expulsion want them gone, all 11.1 million.

The cost alone would be staggering. The Center for American Progress, a research group with close ties to the Obama administration, used numbers from the Department of Homeland Security to estimate that the cost of deporting the 11.1 million would be $285 billion — twice the 2009 costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined.

Worse than the dollar cost, pushing 11 million people out of our midst would look to the rest of the world like a chapter from the Bible, and not one of the good chapters.

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