Getting to work

May 03, 2006

If congressional lawmakers needed any more proof of the urgent need for comprehensive immigration reform, they got it Monday when hundreds of thousands of immigrants around the country, many of them here illegally, ditched work and took to the streets to press for liberalized immigration laws.

"A Day Without Immigrants" it wasn't. From Denver to Dallas, from Chicago to Cleveland, from Miami to Manhattan, and many places in between, immigrant protesters again came out in force and followed the same script that has played out on television screens for the last three weeks. And they relayed a consistent message: The U.S. has an immigration problem that won't be resolved on its own.

Congress must act, and soon. Lawmakers are already scrambling just to keep up with this fast-changing social movement at a time when Americans are pressing for decisive action. Buffeted by strong public opinion on both sides of this issue and facing voters later this year, lawmakers must nonetheless take a leadership role on this matter before they become too polarized to reach agreement on immigration legislation.

Battle lines have been drawn between Americans who favor tougher immigration restrictions and those who support legalizing some of the millions of undocumented immigrants living and working here. Congress should reach for the middle ground and come up with legislation that balances the needs of the U.S. economy, which is partly dependent on immigrant labor, against national security, which is compromised by porous borders.

Like it or not, the 11 million immigrants living here are part of American society. Many are members of blended-status families - some legal, some not - and essential to certain sectors of the U.S. labor force. They own homes, pay taxes and have American-born children. They are not going to leave on their own and it would be impractical and prohibitively expensive to deport them. As the recent protest rallies illustrate, they are no longer willing to live quietly in the shadows of mainstream America, nor should they.

The current controversies over the new Spanish version of the national anthem, the organized work boycotts and the sight of illegal immigrant protesters carrying the flags of their native countries while demanding "rights" in the U.S. are little more than distractions. They merely muddle the larger question of how Congress should fix this nation's broken immigration system. Better for lawmakers to seize the momentum of the rallies and spend the next few weeks focused on crafting a compromise that addresses national security, meets labor market demands and fully integrates long-time immigrants into American society.

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