Liberty's legacy

A chance for immigration policy to be efficient, humane and historic.

February 2, 2013 

The great-great-grandchildren, now in middle age, have read the stories in family Bibles and heard them from their ancestors. Emotional stories they are, about when their families first came to this land called America. For many, the first sight they remember after a rough passage on ocean waters was the Statue of Liberty, Lady Liberty, standing there in New York Harbor, holding that torch.

So many cried literal tears of joy, tears for their freedom, for the chance at new lives in the country that was said to be the land of opportunity. Their hopes through all those tears were modest, and millions whose first glimpse of Lady Liberty was also their first glimpse of America would go through the crowded Ellis Island immigration station with a good bit of fear, but they’d get through the sometimes frantic process with the kind of courage that later would lead them to realizing their dreams and more.

There are many famous alumni of Ellis Island, from Knute Rockne to Bob Hope to Frank Capra, a man who would make so many movies that were quintessentially American. There are generations of descendants who followed the family business, whether it was firefighting or restaurants. Some of those descendants became billionaires; some are laborers. But all, all are now Americans.

Lady Liberty still stands, and has survived the wear and tear of well over 100 years in that harbor (she was dedicated in 1886, a gift from the people of France). But the path of immigrants to the United States, a nation of immigrants since the ones who landed on the Mayflower, has changed considerably, and not for the better.

Chance for progress

At last, it appears, there is hope in the United States Congress, where a serious, needed overhaul of immigration policy has been steadfastly avoided for two generations. A bipartisan group of senators has proposed common-sense change. We must hope it survives what surely will be a rough legislative voyage.

The plan would afford some of the 11 million illegal immigrants currently in U.S. borders the chance for eventual citizenship. Allowing that, without a requirement that those immigrants go home first, would be a major policy step, and a forward one.

The plan, loosely defined at this point, would recognize the value of, for example, issuing green cards to those immigrants with advanced degrees from American universities. It would establish a way to verify legal immigrants and citizens so that employers would not hire undocumented workers. It would establish a program for agricultural workers, of whom many are illegal immigrants, and would allow employers to bring low-skill workers into the country provided they could show they could not hire a U.S. citizen to do the job. Border security would be improved as well.

This plan, more conservative that President Obama’s advocacy of a “clear path” to citizenship emphasized in a Nevada speech Tuesday, speaks to some of the concerns of those who have used immigration for political advantage. But one factor that may have gotten this bipartisan effort going was in fact politics, specifically the 2012 election, when Obama was re-elected with strong support from Latino voters.

On board

That helped GOP Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida join Democrats Charles Schumer of New York, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Michael Bennet of Colorado in coming up with a reform framework. President Obama sounded similar ideas and said he hoped to work with Congress.

Immigration has been a fair tradeoff for the United States as a nation and for immigrants. America offered the opportunity, and immigrants used it to help build the country. Encouraging orderly, legal immigration is a cause all should embrace. Certainly positive steps are preferable to an immigration system that has left county sheriffs to do the job of deportation, that has caused illegal farm workers to be treated inhumanely on occasion, that has seen fears of immigrants among voters exploited by politicians toward no constructive end except re-election.

We are not so distant from that time when the Statue of Liberty was brought here in pieces on ships from France. Might we hope that Congress now will try to reinforce the hope and freedom and opportunity for which she stands?

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