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Tuesday, Sep 30, 2014
Editorials

Opinion: A signpost to citizenship, not a high-speed freeway  

Published:

Standing firm against the new immigration bill will be fashionable in some political circles. The issue has many sides, and this compromise legislation could not possibly please everyone.

Without knowing all the details or consequences, we strongly support the concept of reform that protects the borders and removes, without dangerous gifts of immediate citizenship, the unsettling threat of deportation from the vast community of workers here without official permission.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has played a leading role in negotiating the writing of the bill. He has pushed hard to keep it moving. Some analysts say the effort will cost him the Republican nomination for president in 2016.   

If so, it would be unfair to him and the GOP. If Rubio is batted down just because he was willing to stand up and look for conservative, workable solutions to difficult questions, what sort of nominee would Republicans prefer? Perhaps one who talks big but takes no risks and gets nothing done.

Resistance is expected in the Republican-controlled House. Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas has called the bill “an open invitation to enter the country illegally.” That is overblown. A path to citizenship that takes 13 years is not the sort of forgiveness that incites foreigners to surge across our borders.. Those who can’t prove they were already here at the start of 2012 would not qualify. Even those legally navigating the process won’t be eligible for welfare.

But they would be free to work, travel and report crimes. They could live without fear, and that would be hugely beneficial to families, communities and our national civic health.

There’s no disagreement that too much amnesty will encourage too much illegal immigration. And simplistic suggestions, such as enforcing existing law with a vengeance and unlimited budget, can’t possibly work.

Something else to keep in mind is that although the immigration debate is national, most of the concerns about immigrants are very local. Farm labor is important, but the issue is far more urban than rural. Traditionally, immigrants have settled in cities where they created a Latin Quarter, Chinatown, Little Italy or Ybor City.

Rick Su, writing in the Fordham Urban Law Journal three years ago, noted that “sentiments over immigration are increasingly tied to issues such as housing, traffic congestion, and neighborhood transitions.”

It’s hard, he said, to “distinguish complaints about immigration from complaints about urban life.”

That could help explain why cities in general are more welcoming to immigration than suburbs, where homeowners relying on stressed roads and schools tend to fear any increase in density.

Confusion over why Americans feel as we do about immigration makes reform harder to achieve. It’s often said U.S, immigration law is broken, but that’s not to say it can be easily fixed, like a broken bicycle chain, and be made perfect. Immigration is a human force that must be channeled, in places dammed, and always with a view toward making useful economic energy. Whatever politicians promise, immigration can’t be made to flow uphill against all other incentives.

The hard question is how to engineer a good system. That must be negotiated, as Rubio and seven other lawmakers have done. The practicalities of who qualifies are complex. 

Much work has been done behind the scenes, and apparently in much good faith. Endorsements of the reform are broad. The New York Times reports that supporters include the president of the AFL-CIO, the chairman of the Conservative Union, a leader of the National Council of La Raza, the president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and anti-tax activist Grover Norquist.

Among the changes that seem brilliant on first glance is a shift to a merit system of awarding green cards. Having family would be only one consideration, along with skills and education. Also, the bizarre lottery in green cards would end. The land of the free shouldn’t aspire to be the land of the lottery winners.

“The nation once again is caught between contradictory feelings of hospitality for immigrants and fear of the changes newcomers bring,” the Chicago Sun-Times reported 27 years ago.  It could write the same in tomorrow’s edition.

Leaving these feelings permanently unresolved contributes to a lagging economy, rabble-rousing politics, and dwindling confidence in Congress. Immigration is a hard issue, and we commend Rubio for tackling it with principles and practicality.  

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