Chicago Tribune Editorial - Immigration 2.0
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published April 1, 2007
Last year?s immigration debate started on a sour note and stayed shrill to the end. Republicans in the U.S. House?furious that 12 million people had settled here illegally with the tacit approval of those who were supposed to keep them out?attacked the problem with a punitive bill designed to round ?em up, toss ?em out and lock down the border.
Immigrants responded with a display of public activism that inflamed some people and inspired others. Yes, we're lawbreakers, they said, but try to live without us. The Senate's watered-down attempt to find middle ground was DOA in the House. All that noise for nothing.
It's time to take a deep breath and start over.
Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) have crafted a bill designed to supply the country with the workers it needs, backed up by a system that doesn't tolerate -- much less invite -- abuse. The bill would increase enforcement at the border and in the workplace, adding customs inspectors and border patrol agents and stiffening penalties for illegal workers and those who hire them. It would create a program to admit 400,000 guest workers a year and provide a path to citizenship for those already working here.
Late last week, the White House and Senate Republicans were circulating sketchy details of their own new plan. It would shift emphasis in granting visas to favor prospective new workers over family members seeking to join immigrants already here. That faces heady resistance from Democrats, who would add more visas rather than sacrifice family reunification.
The root of the immigration problem is the dumbfounding disconnect between the number of workers our economy regularly absorbs and the number the government admits legally. In 2005, only about 5,000 visas were issued for low-skill jobs, but nearly half a million people slipped in and found work without them.
But the law is the law, and many Americans find the idea of legalizing those workers especially distasteful. The Flake-Gutierrez bill would not give them a free pass. They would have to register for "conditional non-immigrant status," pass background checks and pay $2,000 in fines. After six years -- during which they must pay taxes, remain employed and learn English -- they'd go to the end of the line to wait for legal residency and eventual citizenship. Before they could apply, they'd have to exit the country and re-enter legally, a largely symbolic gesture but an important one because it would place them, finally, on the right side of the law.
Those who chose not to take those steps would find it much harder to stay. The bill gives employers a new pool of legal workers, an electronic system for verifying their immigration status and tougher penalties for hiring illegal immigrants.
Gutierrez and Flake envision a system under which it is possible to operate legally -- and risky not to. The White House plan, while less generous, seems to have the same goals. Another loud debate is sure to follow.