The New York Times started off the 2010 season of campaigning for immigration reform in an editorial. Nothing substantively new from 2009, when the reform issue seemed buried six feet under. I don’t hold out much hope for much constructive action this year.
Immigration’s New Year
Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York City, at his inauguration, pledged to help the Obama administration pass immigration reform. Mr. Bloomberg is a force to reckon with, as he proved with his national campaign against illegal guns. On the same day, four young people in Miami, current or former students at Miami Dade College, began their own determined march to Washington in an effort to bring pressure from the grass roots.
Three of the four were brought to this country illegally as children. Like thousands of other young people, they bear no blame for their status, and they are frustrated that their hard work and bright promise lead to a brick wall. Their protest for a chance to become Americans is courageous because it exposes them to possible arrest and deportation. “We are risking our future because our present is unbearable,” one of them, Felipe Matos, told The Times.
The Obama administration has vowed to press ahead with reform this year. Given the hard economic times, the politics may be bleaker even than in 2007 when reform was scuttled in an ugly battle. The need is just as real — for the undocumented and for the country.
America needs to shut the path to illegal entry and employment while opening smoother and more rational routes to legal immigration. Opponents of reform say the downturn is a terrible time to fix the system, but they are wrong. When the recovery comes, the country will need a functioning system more than ever — one that encourages legal entry and bolsters all workers’ rights.
To do this, the country needs to bring its huge undocumented underclass into the light. This means putting 12 million people on a path to being assimilated. It is not a question of adding new people to the work force; they are here, many helping keep the economy afloat while tolerating low pay and abuse from lawbreaking employers who prefer them to American workers.
Representative Luis Gutierrez, a Democrat of Illinois, already has offered a sensible bill that legalizes immigrants who show that they have been employed, pay a $500 fine, learn English and undergo a criminal background check, among other things.
Opponents will try their best to scuttle reform by claiming to be open to compromise while they insist on prohibitive fees, penalties and requirements that turn the path into a fiction — not a wait of months but of decades or never. That is not reform. And it won’t solve the problem.
After years of tightening the screws, the system is hopelessly frozen. Those who want to fix it will have to shut out the choruses of no-amnestys and over-my-dead-bodys, sidestep the false arguments and press into the headwinds while holding firm to the core of the better solution. To legalize the undocumented, collect their unpaid taxes, free them to earn more and spend more, to get the immigrant escalator to the middle class moving again. The country needs it; the economy needs it; the immigrants need and deserve it.
“No city on earth has been more rewarded by immigrant labor, more renewed by immigrant ideas, more revitalized by immigrant culture,” Mr. Bloomberg said of New York City last week. Substitute “country” in that sentence, as in America, and it is every bit as true.