Capitol Hill

Immigration claims center stage

When I reported in November 2003 about the prospects for immigration reform, I was cautiously optimistic that the debate might sneak back onto the national stage. Trial balloon, or "tester," legislation recently had been floated on Capitol Hill; Mexico continued to press publicly for an agreement with the United States; and there were subtle signals from the White House that it might be interested in moving forward with a limited proposal if homeland security concerns could be satisfied first. What a difference two months make.

On Jan. 7, President Bush re-energized the immigration debate by placing the immigration conversation front and center on his policy agenda. Probably the most dramatic immigration plan since the 1942 bracero program, which provided Mexican field labor to Southwestern farmers whose farm hands had been drafted during World War II, Bush proposed a new temporary worker program to match willing foreign workers with willing U.S. employers when no U.S. workers can be found to fill jobs. Bush also outlined his principles for immigration reform, which he said were necessary to fix a broken system and promote compassion for those who have helped make the United States prosperous.

Bush's plan would allow workers abroad and those already illegally employed in the United States to obtain renewable three-year work visas to take jobs unfilled by U.S. workers. Undocumented workers already in the United States could enter the program immediately after providing proof of employment. Participating workers in the program would be entitled to the same employment rights and protections to which legal workers are entitled. The plan also calls for an increase in the number of green cards for those wishing to reside in the United States permanently. The plan neither rewards anyone illegally in the United States with "amnesty" nor offers anyone preference over those who have waited to enter the United States legally.

Bush left the task of determining the fine details to Congress. But he's to be congratulated for tackling such a complex, contentious topic for two reasons. First, it's the right thing to do. Despite the protests of those who would have the United States wall off its southern neighbors, the nation's growing reliance on foreign labor is undeniable. And yet the current system fails to provide enough visas for employers to fill jobs they cannot satisfy domestically. Roofing contractors, in particular, face an enduring shortage of workers because there are not enough domestic workers to meet the labor demand.

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