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Sat., Aug. 18, 2012

Editorial: As reform languishes, immigrants left in limbo

It’s been sad to watch Republicans cede the rational course on immigration reform to the likes of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and other political opportunists. Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush embraced common-sense proposals that acknowledged the reality of what this nation has wrought with its paradoxical positions on illegal immigrants.

With a wink and a nod, the nation has said we don’t want them while encouraging them to take low-wage jobs other Americans don’t want to perform. Americans rail publicly about the costs to government while silently reaping the benefits of cheap labor. This complicated relationship has produced 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants.

Six years ago, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., worked together on legislation that would’ve allowed illegal immigrants to emerge from the shadows and embark on a path to citizenship. They would’ve had to pay fines and back taxes, provide a documented work history and learn English. Those with criminal backgrounds would not have been eligible. President George W. Bush threw his support behind this bipartisan effort.

But bashing illegal immigrants and blaming them for the country’s ills proved to be too tempting, so the bill was killed. Ever since, the position of most Republicans has been to build a wall, secure the border and then – and only then – will they talk about what to do with those on this side of the wall. Democrats have chosen a low profile.

The reality is we’re never going to be able to identify and deport 12 million people. Kicking out those who were brought here by their parents doesn’t even make sense. It certainly flies in the face of “family values” rhetoric.

The DREAM Act is more narrowly focused on young illegal immigrants. It would extend the possibility of citizenship if they completed university course work or served in the military. Their allegiance is already to the United States. For many, it’s the only country they’ve ever known. Kicking them out would mean sending them to a foreign land. But with nativist sentiment running high, the DREAM Act has stalled in Congress.

So in June, President Barack Obama issued an executive order that is, in a sense, a down payment on the DREAM Act. It allows eligible people to apply for temporary work permits and deportation deferrals. As many as 1.7 million youths could be eligible, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. About 30,000 of them reside in Washington state.

With cries of “backdoor amnesty,” opponents are loudly objecting. Brewer has issued an order barring Arizona agencies from issuing these youths the driver’s licenses or other paperwork they might need to qualify.

Is Obama overreaching? Well, it would be better if Congress acted, but it hasn’t shown any desire to compromise. So as it stands, young people who apply for these waivers will be gambling that the country doesn’t change its mind.

Sadly, this is the best alternative available.

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