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Sun., April 2, 2006

Balancing act

We’re not going to build a wall from San Diego to Brownsville, Texas. We’re not going to round up 11 million people and ship them out of the country. We’re not going to reclassify them as felons and throw them into already overcrowded prisons. We’re not going to prosecute the churches and soup kitchens that help them.

In short, House Republicans can forget about their ugly solutions to illegal immigration, because they’re not reflective of American values. The social upheaval would be catastrophic. And as a practical matter, what army would we borrow to corral millions of illegal immigrants? Ours is a bit tied up in Iraq and Afghanistan.

However, we do need to find a way to stem the tide of illegal immigration and take the pressure off the states that are bearing the brunt of the costs while the rest of the country enjoys the benefits, including cheaper housing, food and other goods and services. Americans should not forget that they are complicit in this problem. Lashing out at illegal immigrants that we allowed into this country with a wink and a nod is hypocritical and counterproductive.

As long as there is a huge gap in prosperity between Mexico and the United States, there will be people trying to sneak in to scratch out an existence. We cannot end illegal immigration, but we can bring it out of the shadows and confront what we’ve created. Then we can adopt realistic, humane solutions.

What President Bush has proposed and what has passed the Senate Judiciary Committee provide a solid foundation for debate. Unfortunately, House Republicans have their eyes peeled on midterm elections and public opinion polls that tell them that harsh solutions are the most popular.

But as the stunning demonstrations across American cities have shown, House Republicans haven’t cornered the market on anger. In fact, their proposals have generated a furious backlash.

In response to the more balanced solution in the Senate, House Republicans have labeled it “amnesty.” That’s dishonest.

A bill co-sponsored by U.S. John McCain, R-Ariz., and U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., would not give illegal immigrants a free ride. If they want to remain in this country, they must pay a fine and back taxes, provide a documented work history, undergo a criminal background check and learn English. Then they are placed at the back of the line, behind those who have pursued the proper channels.

The process could take 11 years. There are no guarantees. In the meantime, they would be allowed to work as long as they demonstrated a good-faith effort to comply with the law.

The Senate bill also calls for significantly upgrading border security and toughening sanctions against companies that won’t comply.

That’s better than not knowing who is in the country, which is a security problem, and perpetuating the underground economy that exploits fear in exchange for cheap labor.

Because the process would be time-consuming, Congress should consider ways to ease the burden on border states, which incur huge costs to their schools, welfare systems and public health and safety agencies.

The issue of illegal immigration has been simmering for years. But now that it has reached a boiling point, we can no longer ignore it. How we solve the problem will say a lot about what it means to be an American.

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