Seeking paths

Congressional delay on immigration reform harms the nation's interests. President Obama is right to press for action.

July 2, 2009 

The once-hot immigration potato is on the table again. Consulting recently with Democratic and Republican lawmakers at the White House, President Obama made it clear he wants Congress to wrestle with, and formulate a policy for, dealing with the current and surely future illegal immigrants in the United States. And he wants that done before year's end (though early next year might be more realistic).

The nation's current policies are a sort of ignore-it-and-maybe-it-will-go away mishmash. Laws are in place that set the procedures for legal immigration and prohibit violations, yet the nation's borders are porous and local response to the illegal immigration problem remains varied. In some communities, sheriffs are using a federal mandate to check the status of those they arrest on other charges, and then starting deportation. In others, officialdom seems to look the other way. That's a result of the muddle on the issue in Washington.

Labor-intensive, low-wage businesses in some cases use illegal workers because they are cheap and disinclined to buck managers for fear of being sent back to Mexico, for example. Some complain that the children of illegal immigrants are crowding classrooms, a claim that tends to be exaggerated. Certainly those immigrant families are using local public health agencies, but no one really can figure to what extent.

And for public universities and community colleges, the issue is complicated: The children of illegal immigrants who want to gain an education obviously would be improving their lives and eventually, those of their children. But there remain those concerned about limited resources and strict obedience of the law who want to deny the children of illegal immigrants all benefits, period.

In North Carolina, officials of the state's public universities and community colleges have taken enlightened positions that would allow those children to enroll if they paid out-of-state tuition rates, thus offsetting the expense to taxpayers. That approach acknowledges that most such students have come here as children, at their parents' behest, and thus shouldn't be made to pay an unfair price for their parents' decisions.

And this state has many immigrant workers, legal and illegal, especially in manufacturing, food processing and agriculture, which makes finding a solution to this problem all the more important here.

The debate may rage, but the fact is that with 12 to 14 million illegal immigrants in the country, the notion of sending them all back to their native countries is unrealistic. Some in Congress have proposed expanded guest-worker programs, sort of a hybrid creation that would allow illegal immigrants to work without necessarily fast-tracking them to citizenship. That idea, however, is opposed by labor unions, which see additional illegal workers as a threat to their members. The president says that option is "on the table," as are all others.

Before this year is out, members of Congress must go to that table and work out a comprehensive policy on illegal immigration that will provide uniform laws and make it possible for illegal immigrants who have clean records and have demonstrated they only wish to work and raise their families eventually to achieve citizenship if they want it. The current policy is next to no policy at all, which means it is bad policy.

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