Friday, May 18, 2007

On a gold star for George

Okay, so right on, Mr. President.

No, seriously.

Y'all, shut up, I'm being serious. This is a big deal, because when the president does something right, we need to pay attention.
The Bush administration and a bipartisan group of senators reached agreement yesterday on a sprawling overhaul of the nation's immigration laws that would bring an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants out of society's shadows while stiffening border protections and cracking down on employers of undocumented workers.

The delicate compromise, 380 pages long and three months in the making, represents perhaps the last opportunity for President Bush to win a major legislative accomplishment for his second term, and it could become the most significant revision of the nation's immigration system in 41 years. Bush hailed the agreement as "one that will help enforce our borders, but equally importantly, it will treat people with respect."

Now, I'll grant you that it's not a perfect plan. There are, in fact, a lot of things wrong with it, not the least of which being that Step 1 toward a "Z" visa involves writing a $6,500 check, and if you can afford to do that, you probably aren't sneaking across any borders to clean rich people's houses. And Senate hardliners on both sides of the issue aren't at all unlikely to torpedo the thing on the basis of those flaws.

But look at what it does right:

- It gives immigrants currently in the US illegally a chance to gain citizenship the legal way (which the Dems should like), but it puts them in line behind immigrants who took the legal route in the first place (which the Repubs should like).

- It makes said citizenship contingent both on familial connections (which the Dems should like) and on skills, education, and potential contributions to society and the economy (which the Repubs should like).

- It provides legal status to protect the rights of immigrant workers (which the Dems should like) while leaving business owners with their source of labor (which the Repubs should like).

The bill takes into account the interests of the US in terms of security, the economy, and government resources, but also (which is new, for immigration bills) addresses the positive impact of immigrants on society and addresses concerns for their welfare.

A good start? Absolutely. A solid plan? Not entirely. It certainly has room for improvement.

- Strengthen the provisions for legal entry because of family ties. The current proposal has slashed access for adult siblings, adult children, and parents of US citizens. If we're trying to encourage family values, having the family all in one country is an important consideration.

- Broaden the range of occupations covered under the point system. The current proposal gives more points for high-demand occupations, but as Illinois Rep. Luis V. Gutierre points out, "The landscaper is just as important as the computer scientist." And the agricultural worker, for instance, may well have more positive impact on the economy than the computer scientist.

- Build extensions and permanent residence into the guest-worker program. Currently, guest workers would have to leave the US immediately as soon as their visas expire, without any chance to appeal for permanent citizenship. It strikes me that both the workers, the employers, and the US as a whole would benefit from the stability of continuous employment, rather than a revolving door of immigrants coming in and getting kicked back out. A worker who proves his willingness to contribute to society with continuous employment seems deserving of a chance for permanent residence, especially considering that there are a lot of rather worthless, noncontributing Americans who did nothing more than inherit their citizenship by popping out of the womb on US soil.

- Lower the cost of entry. Or at least work out a payment plan. A $5,000 fine and a $1,500 processing fee is a lot for someone who has probably been picking Vidalia onions for less than minimum wage for the past ten years. A worker who can show a clean work record and pass a criminal background check can probably be counted on to make regular payments, if citizenship is really that important to them.

- Don't try and build a freaking fence around Mexico. Do we really think that's going to work? My parents have a fence around their yard, but their none-too-bright Brittany spaniel managed to find her way to the park every other morning. Aren't there other things we could be spending that money on?

And I hate to say it, since there's so much potential there, but this bill, as it stands, doesn't need to pass. California Sen. Diane Feinstein urged Congress not to "let the perfect be the enemy of the good," but you have to weigh the benefits against the costs. You have to realize who could be hurt in your quest for "the good," and in my opinion, this bill comes off lacking. But it's a good start. It addresses the real issues, the problems with and benefits of immigration and the impact it has on every facet of society, in contrast with past bills that have focused solely on snatching up illegal migrants and pitching them back over the border.

And as I mentioned at the top of this post, as bizarre as it sounds, I have to give a lot of credit to President Bush. The man has made immigration reform a personal goal since his election, and he's making efforts to push it through. And he kind of knows what he's talking about; if you want to understand the impact of illegal immigration on society, talk to the governor of a border state. The fact that he's been willing to compromise, to risk the wrath of Republican anti-immigration hardliners, says a lot about him and his commitment to this goal. Further compromise, compromise that would benefit both the immigrants and the US, could turn this bill into a viable approach to immigration reform.

Just as President Reagan was known (for right or wrong) as "the guy who pulled down the Iron Curtain," President Bush could, if he's open to more compromise, someday be known as "the guy who fixed immigration." And that would leave him with a legacy beyond just "the guy who totally screwed things up in Iraq." Everybody wins.

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