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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Let’s get real about immigration

Lydia Chavez Special to the Los Angeles Times

It’s time we dealt with the reality of immigration.

Most of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States will stay (by any means necessary), more will come (by any means possible) and most of those newcomers also will stay. Our economy’s demand for cheap labor ensures a steady supply of immigrants.

So what should we do in the face of these facts? How do we make policy that matches the reality?

For starters, we should stop making punishment the primary motive for immigration reform and legislation.

Instead, we must acknowledge our role in the increasing numbers of newcomers, look for ways to organize the necessary flow of new workers into the country and begin an upfront process of incorporating immigrants into society.

The plan President Bush announced to great fanfare comes up short. It makes a politically convenient nod at beefing up border security and establishing a “compassionate” guest-worker plan that would turn those workers out of the country in six years. But it just as conveniently avoids the details because the White House knows that in six years few of those “guest” workers will leave.

Still, the Bush proposal is not quite as ridiculous as the plan recently approved by the House, which would turn undocumented workers into felons, or the one presented earlier this year by Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz. Their plan demands that all undocumented immigrants leave the country – it doesn’t address how – and then apply for a temporary-worker program that, like the president’s, carries no promise of permanent residency or citizenship in the future.

Where Washington is closest to “realidad” is another Senate measure, sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. It also includes temporary work visas for newcomers and for undocumented workers already here. But after six “temporary” years, immigrants would be eligible for permanent residency, and five years after that (a typical residency requirement for naturalization), workers could apply for citizenship.

It may be close to reality, but it’s still a long way from the needs of immigrants and their communities. The terms of the McCain-Kennedy proposal mean that it would take 11 years before immigrants could fully participate in U.S. life. That’s a long time, especially when you consider that, according to research by Philip Martin, a labor and immigration expert at the University of California, Davis, most undocumented residents have been here for eight years already.

Punishment – instead of amnesty – placates anti-immigration activists, but it also penalizes the weakest among us and fails to recognize what’s clear: If we wanted to stop the migration, we could.

In California, the undocumented can’t get a driver’s license, so we could surely prevent them from getting jobs. And if there weren’t jobs, the flood of immigrants would dwindle to a trickle.

In our zeal for punishment, we forget that American citizenship is not supposed to be a reward for years of low-paying, back-breaking labor. Citizenship is a way to organize our society around shared values and customs. It is how we incorporate newcomers so that they fly our flag and commit to our system.

No country has a better history of achieving that than the United States. The public school movement, the Pledge of Allegiance and high school civics classes all have roots in early efforts to make Americans out of immigrants and forge national unity. In the early 1900s, businesses ran in-house language and civics classes to Americanize the labor force they needed.

Forging a national unity again should be on the table as the debate on immigration heats up in 2006. We are, as ever, a nation of immigrants. We need to make Americans of those who are here, do it fairly and quickly, and get on with creating a legal path for newcomers.

Such measures could secure the United States because they are built on “realidad,” rather than the pretense that political pandering, fantasy or hate can replace effective policy.

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