June 15, 2007

Commentary:

Keep Working On Immigration

By Eliseo Medina

The Senate’s “grand compromise” immigration bill contains many flaws, but it has the potential to begin fixing immigration as we know it and put our nation onto a stronger course. As it stands, the bill would enhance our nation’s security by helping 12 million undocumented immigrants come out from the shadows and get on a path to citizenship. It also commits to ending the notorious visa backlog—no small feat for an underfunded government agency whose delays make many immigrants patiently wait for visas that never arrive.

However, Thursday night, the Senate’s minority Republicans—including the major architect of the ‘grand bargain’ Senator Jon Kyl, R-Ariz.—stymied reform efforts with a cloture vote that effectively stalled progress again.

This is unacceptable. Yes, the immigration bill is imperfect, and it will take a lot of creativity, compromise and improvements before it will work for America. But the challenge before us does not justify sticking our heads in the sand. There are real issues to be resolved, and it is the job of our elected representatives to make it happen. 

And it is our job to make sure that our concerns are addressed. Requiring immigrants from as far away as the Philippines to return to their home countries before entering the legalization process is a political gimmick with no practical purpose. “Touchback” will dissuade many from coming out from the shadows, and create more chaos at the border and in our U.S. Consulates abroad.

Likewise, replacing the family-based sponsorship program with a point system to determine who can come to this country has the potential to become a dangerous social experiment. It will establish a class of workers who lack family and community roots and are separated from would-be employers. Those who champion this elite recruitment strategy must remember that it’s the low-skill job sector that is poised to see the greatest growth in coming years.

Finally, “temporary is temporary”— barring future immigrant workers from a path to permanent residency— is a recipe for more illegal immigration and is out of line with U.S. values. All workers know that temporary workers depress wages and create a second class workforce that is disconnected from the U.S. mainstream and not equal. We can do better.

For a nation that is more divided than ever, it is no small fact that more than 60 percent of Americans favor an immigration program that provides earned legalization for those already here, establishes controlled channels for immigrants to come and work here in the future, and grants adequate funds for enforcement. Getting this done will be hard. But inaction – the real possibility that our legislators won’t agree on these widely shared principles – would be a tragedy.

Sadly, the voices of the reasonable majority are far too often drowned out by an angry, out-of-touch minority that is dead set upon blocking any real immigration reform. If they succeed and we are left with the status quo, millions of hard working immigrants will live in constant fear of deportation, employers will continue to operate outside the law, and labor protections for all American workers will erode.

This immigration debate is as much about bringing order out of chaos as it is about the kind of nation that we want to be. Look around you; saying that “we are a proud nation of immigrants” is not an empty slogan. When you dine out, there is a good chance that a recent immigrant cooked your burger, delivered the food supplies to the restaurant, prepared the beef cut at the processing factory, and even fed the cow in the feedlot. If you’ve purchased new construction in the past 10 years, your walls may have been built by these same hard-working immigrants who continue to live in the shadows.

Construction, landscaping, and janitorial industries are increasingly relying on middle-level managers whose paperwork might be considered “criminal,” but who make up the backbone of entire American industries. America’s character and America’s future depend on these striving immigrant busboys, cleaners, child care providers, and construction and factory foremen. Indeed, immigrants are America.

Today, our nation is at a critical crossroads, facing many complex issues with no easy solutions. But among the many urgent dilemmas – a war with no clear end, a deeply divided, population and failing domestic programs like health care and education— fixing our broken immigration system may be our first chance for a decisive victory.

There has never been a more important moment for our representatives to lead with clarity and vision on this issue. Congress needs to seize this moment to rise above partisanship, get back to work, and deliver a solution. Americans are hungry for progress. We all need this victory.

Eliseo Medina, described by the Los Angeles Times as “one of the most successful labor organizers in the country,” has served as international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) since 1996.

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