Compromise Needed on Immigration Reform Bills

Racism. Lawlessness. Civil rights. Amnesty.

Politicians, pundits and demonstrators on both sides of the polarized national debate regarding what to do about illegal immigration are quick to utter these emotionally charged buzzwords. But determining a solution to this political and social problem, which Arizona Senator John McCain has aptly called a defining moment in the history of the United States of America, requires careful, pragmatic reasoning and compromise.

The Senate Judiciary Committee last week took important steps toward such a compromise on the issue. We support these efforts and urge lawmakers and the American public to consider all the economic, social and security ramifications of any law changes.

The issue came to the fore in December when the House approved a bill that would make entering the country illegally or aiding illegal immigrants a criminal offense. It also calls for erecting a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border and increasing border security forces.

The competing Senate bill, backed by President Bush, would offer the roughly 11 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. a chance at citizenship over several years if they pay fines, prove they are employed, learn English and submit to background checks.

The bills have solicited widespread opposition. Thousands of protesters in California, Texas, New York and elsewhere rallied last week, calling the house bill inhumane; some critics have labeled it a civil rights issue, comparing sanctioning illegals to interning Japanese citizens during World War II or to the segregationist laws against blacks. Some protesters marched with signs reading We are your economy.

Indeed, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, 90 percent of the agricultural workers in California are undocumented. As critics point out, immigrants, largely Latino, fulfill many manual-labor and agricultural jobs that some citizens find undesirable. Some pay taxes and pay social security benefits they will not receive. And for many immigrants, the opportunity to work in the U.S. may be their best chance for supporting a family; one of every six Mexican families have some dependency on money earned in the U.S., according to Jose Carreno, Washington correspondent for the Mexican newspaper El Universal.

Yet it is difficult for law enforcement to identify and track illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds. Many of them use social services without paying state or federal taxes. Illegal immigrants willing to work for low wages also compete with unskilled citizens. Further, many immigrants send much of their money back to Mexico; remittances to Mexico amounted to about $20 billion in 2005.

And comparisons to internment camps and segregation are hyperbole. Unlike the Japanese or blacks, illegals are not citizens being treated unequally by the law. Equal civil rights only apply to people who fulfill the obligations of citizenship, such as paying taxes and forgoing allegiance to other nations.

Thus granting some undocumented workers temporary legal status, as the Senate bill proposes, is the best solution. Such a program would allow for immigrants to be documented and regulated.

Because a guest worker program helps facilitate continued functioning of the economy, increased homeland security and shows humanity toward foreign citizens in need of employment, some immigrants should be granted temporary legal status and given a later chance to gain citizenship. We urge members of Congress to work in a bipartisan manner to affect realistic legal changes.