The Right Immigration Reform

By Marcela Sanchez
Saturday, July 30, 2005

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. -- As a young reporter in this part of the country in the early 1990s, I covered the Latino community, an assignment known in those days as the migrant workers beat. Back then, most of the Latino workforce this far north headed back home south of the Rio Grande before winter set in.

Little did I know then that within a few years, the beat would change dramatically. In 1993, the Clinton administration began efforts to reduce all illegal crossings of the U.S.-Mexico border, which meant that many Latino workers ended their circular migration and instead began to live here year-round. The number of Latino residents in Minnesota has increased more than 166 percent in 15 years, the ninth-fastest growth in the nation.

Immigration reform proposals that ignore this shift do so at their peril. Today one-third of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in this country illegally have been doing so for more than a decade. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, most unauthorized immigrants have their direct families here, many millions have U.S.-born relatives, and nearly one-third own their primary residence.

In other words, most illegal Latinos are making the United States their home. Any proposal that would require these immigrants to give up their homes and sever their roots in this country will not likely achieve compliance. And without compliance, what good is reform?

A bill introduced last week by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) shows little concern for getting millions of undocumented immigrants to accept its terms and yet requires their cooperation for success. The bill demands that the undocumented present themselves to government officials, pay a fine and submit to deportation. Once in their countries of origin, they could apply for a new guest-worker program that would grant them a temporary work visa but would send them back for at least one year once that visa expires. The bill and especially its "report to deport" strategy is meant to satisfy those who desire a punitive solution to the dysfunctional U.S. immigration system. The problem is that those groups in favor of harsh measures may never be satisfied. They see immigrants as a threat and don't feel safe even among the immigrants' newborn.

The Center for Immigration Studies, one such group, suggests that there is some kind of imminent danger posed by children born to immigrants. In the conclusion to a report issued this month, the center indicates that it was the children of European immigrants that caused "the labor unrest of the Great Depression." And it was the children of black migrants from the South "who rioted in northern cities during the 1960s." The White House and Republican Party leaders know that such extreme views -- held by some Republicans in Congress -- are politically untenable. To distance themselves, they are creating a coalition of business leaders and immigrant advocates that, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times this week, would attempt to "marginalize those voices" that could scare away Latino voters and perhaps jeopardize the Republican majority in Congress.

While it is unknown where this Americans for Border and Economic Security coalition stands in regard to immigration reforms before Congress, it would better serve itself and Republican ambitions by supporting the bipartisan proposal by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.). The bill, introduced in May, is the only one that acknowledges the roots that many illegal immigrants have already put down in this country.

The legislative proposal would encourage illegal immigrants to join a guest-worker program for up to six years by giving them the opportunity to obtain legal residence and start on the path to citizenship. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), one of the initial co-sponsors of the McCain-Kennedy bill on the House side, said that allowing for such permanent legalization must be part of the equation. If the bill offered immigrants only a temporary opportunity to legalize their situation, many would not take it and would likely "disappear after that."

The other day, I felt that I had returned to the migrant worker beat when I spotted a small Latino family at a grocery store here in "northwoods country." When I was covering this issue years ago, I could be almost certain that such a family would be among the transient workers who would head south in a few months, with their sparse belongings in tow. Today, families like this are buying homes and settling down. These immigrant families are managing to make a life in this country, just as I did, and I know they appreciate it to such a degree that they won't give it up easily.

desdewash@washpost.com


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