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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Immigration reform key for orchards, industry

The nation’s dysfunctional immigration policies may at last be on their way to reform.

Monday, a bipartisan group of eight senators released a set of principles that will open the way to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States, while increasing border surveillance and the interception of others. President Barack Obama, who welcomed the Senate announcement, will unveil his plan today.

Enactment of legislation that clarifies the path toward legal residency and, finally, citizenship, is important to Washington.

Orchardists have complained of labor shortages for years, and the problem has worsened as improved border security cut off the flow of labor from Mexico and nations farther south. More and more fruit is falling to the ground – wasted – despite the adoption of more mechanized harvesting.

Meanwhile, the state’s high-tech industries have complained about their inability to recruit all the talent they need to achieve or maintain global leadership. Washington’s universities award graduate degrees to many foreign nationals who might fill some of the available positions but for the limit on visas that would allow them to stay.

The principles introduced by the senators include one that would grant green cards to individuals with graduate degrees in engineering, science and math. Everyone who leaves takes with them the state money invested in their education, and the skills and entrepreneurial drive that could create the next big thing.

But let’s face it, the renewed focus on immigration has less to do with the potential economic benefits than it does electoral math.

For the Democrats, reform is payback for the 70 percent support the president garnered in November. Obama jumped the issue in June by blocking the deportation of 800,000 immigrants brought into the country before they were 16, and who met other criteria. That popular move dampened anger focused on the increased rate of deportation under his administration compared with that of President George W. Bush, also a strong supporter of immigration reform.

But his fellow Republicans needed another lesson about the peril hard-line anti-immigration policies pose for the party as the numbers of their traditional constituencies decline. Immigrants and their strong support for religious and family values should be natural allies.

The steps toward citizenship outlined in the Senate principles are no cakewalk. They include registration, financial commitments and background checks. They would have to learn English. And border security would be further tightened; a must if the reforms are to have any credibility.

Many illegal immigrants will not qualify, and will try to remain in the shadows. But they will be all the more conspicuous as the vast majority who aspire to a life of opportunity, including many who have contributed to their communities for decades, come forward.

Realistically, they are not going back.

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