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Immigration reform is within our grasp. Meanwhile, people die.

By Edward Schumacher-Matos
Thursday, July 22, 2010;

The article was largely buried in most newspapers, if run at all.

So many bodies of unauthorized migrants are being found in the Arizona desert this month, the Associated Press reported, that the Pima County Medical Examiner was stacking them like boxes of fish in a refrigerated truck.

Forty bodies were found in just the first half of the month.

Last year, 317 Americans died fighting in Afghanistan. Guess how many migrants, mostly Mexicans searching for work, died crossing illegally into America? The Border Patrol collected 422 in the last fiscal year, part of a rising trend.

And most die in the desert. Here is how Luis Alberto Urrea, in his book, "The Devil's Highway," described what happens:

"Dehydration had reduced all your inner streams to sluggish mudholes. . . . Your sweat runs out. . . . Your temperature redlines -- you hit 105, 106, 108 degrees. . . . Your muscles, lacking water, feed on themselves. They break down and start to rot. . . . The system closes down in a series. Your kidney, your bladder, your heart."

Yet these deaths figure little in the debate over immigration. There is faint sense of scandal, of tragedy or, certainly, of urgency to agree on a solution. The extremists rule, with one side calling for more enforcement and the other saying enforcement doesn't work.

The former has the louder voice today, making it the bigger culprit, but the latter -- humanitarian groups, for one -- share in the blame. They seem not to find any enforcement policy they like, abandoning responsibility.

The Obama administration, like the Bush administration before it, is caught in the middle, a Gulliver tied by Lilliputians and unable to take command of the fight.

If our nation's legislators felt free to vote their conscience and intelligence, it's a good bet that at least 80 percent of the Senate and two-thirds of the House would vote now for a comprehensive immigration package. It would include a robust temporary worker program, improved workplace enforcement, recruitment of highly skilled immigrants and a pathway to legalization for the estimated 10.8 million unauthorized immigrants here.

There would be wrangling over the details, but the agreement on these principles is no secret among Washington insiders in the debate. The rest of the country just doesn't know it.

In polling, most Americans say much the same about those principles, but our solons, unable to see beyond the November elections, timidly cow before the extremists in their political bases.

What might help some of them find their spine? The president must first find his.

A good place to begin is on the U.S.-Mexico border. The first of the 1,200 National Guard troops President Obama has ordered to the border arrive Aug. 1. The president should make a dramatic gesture and send as many as 10,000 more. Instead of the 500 going to Arizona, he should up the force there to at least the 3,000 that Republican Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl are asking for.

The gesture is mostly political -- the Guard is not trained for border patrolling -- but political action is what's needed now. This would reassure the American middle that the government is in control and give legislators the cover they need.

Besides, the temporary show of force may deter more immigrants from crossing the desert and dying.

The second thing the president should do is reach a quick deal with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on a temporary worker program. The chamber went off the deep end with its recent diatribe that the administration is anti-business, but the business side of the Republican Party must be re-empowered against the immigration restrictionists of the Tea Party movement, on this issue and much more.

Employers want such a program, and no amount of enforcement will work without legal avenues to help them fill jobs that Americans can't or won't do at competitive wage levels.

The alternative is to do nothing and have more scenes such as that of 29-year-old Jorge Garcia. On his way last year to rejoin his family, Garcia, a diabetic, was found in the Japul Mountains on the border with California, dead from what coroners later said was a lack of insulin. Clutched in his fingers was a photo of his daughters.

Edward Schumacher-Matos is syndicated by the Washington Post Writers Group. His e-mail address is edward.schumachermatos@yahoo.com.

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