Immigration impasse ahead

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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

DESPITE THE lame-duck defeat of a modest immigration reform known as the Dream Act, both President Obama and Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said they are not giving up on improving the nation's immigration laws. We applaud their persistence and hope progress is possible - if not for something "comprehensive," as was the goal in the past Congress, then for incremental change.

The recession and high unemployment certainly clouded the prospects for reform. Not coincidentally, the midterm elections elevated both in Washington and state capitals a number of politicians who are not much open to compromise. Mr. Obama has stepped up deportations and company audits above Bush administration levels, yet these politicians continue to attack the administration for its supposed softness on the issue. Calls to "close the border" before any other reform can be considered can hardly be taken seriously, given how many resources are now being devoted to border control.

In a handful of Southern and Western states, Republican governors and lawmakers are vowing to replicate Arizona's harshly nativist law or go even further with bills that would outlaw the presence of undocumented immigrants or require police to screen suspects for immigration status - or both. The assumption underlying such legislation is that the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country, including the 7 million who hold jobs, can and should be deported en masse.

In fact, deportation on such a scale would be impractical and economically self-defeating. According to polling data, it would also be broadly unpopular. Even among Americans who don't depend directly on illegal immigrants as a source of unskilled labor - which many do - there is little appetite for wrenching millions of undocumented families, including many with roots, relatives and children in America, from their communities and shoving them across the border.

In Congress, Rep. Steve King, an Iowa Republican who is likely to chair the subcommittee dealing directly with immigration, wants to end automatic or "birthright" citizenship for children born in the United States, which has been enshrined in U.S. law since the 14th Amendment's adoption in 1868. Mr. King's proposal, which targets children of illegal immigrants, is unlikely to carry both houses of Congress, and in any event it would be vetoed by Mr. Obama.

Impasse also seems likely in efforts to shape comprehensive reform that would crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers while providing a steady supply of guest workers, attracting the skilled workers the country needs and offering a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here.

But particular pieces of immigration reform might still have bipartisan appeal. One such element is the historical shortage of visas for foreign workers with special skills and advanced degrees. Although demand eased somewhat this year due to the recession, and there are legitimate concerns about abuses in the system, the standing quotas in those categories - amounting to just 85,000 available visas per year - have been severely inadequate in recent years.

The result is that thousands of highly educated and technically adept foreigners - precisely the workers America needs to compete in the global marketplace - have been unable to come to the United States to fill vacant jobs here. That's even been true for foreigners who have completed PhDs in specialized fields at top U.S. universities - and are then forced to leave the country. Nothing could be more self-defeating. Let's hope Congress can at least see its way to fixing that problem.


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