Last week, President George W. Bush finally signaled his intention to push for the immigration reform plan he unveiled nearly one year ago. That’s good news for a proposal that offers a creative solution to a long-standing problem.
The plan, designed to grant temporary legal status to millions of undocumented aliens working in the United States, met a chilly reception when it was announced in January. Bush did little to promote it during the presidential election.
The measure is certain to face intense opposition. Republican members of Congress have argued Bush’s temporary worker program rewards – and therefore encourages – illegal immigration. Members of both parties see immigration as a security threat in the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world. Some unions believe immigrants will undercut U.S. workers.
Those fears are understandable, but they’re largely misplaced. Large numbers of undocumented immigrants – many from Mexico – are a fact of life, driven primarily by wealth and wage disparities between the United States and the developing world. Granting temporary legal status to those workers merely recognizes a fait accompli.
Concern that immigrant workers compete with U.S. workers for scarce jobs is equally mistaken. Most immigrant laborers fill positions that U.S. workers pass over – retail and service-sector jobs that pay low wages and require little skill.
Security concerns make less sense with the Department of Homeland Security in place. And, to put it mildly, immigrant laborers are an unlikely source of terrorism.
The ugly reality is that these fears often border on nativist sentiments and a subtle racism. In Arizona, voters passed an Election Day ballot initiative likely to reduce immigrants’ access to public services such as health care and education. The 2003 Minnesota Legislature made a similar move, limiting undocumented aliens’ eligibility for state health-care assistance.
The Bush proposal takes a more enlightened approach. It sees immigration as a net gain for the economy and ties temporary legal status to gainful employment. It wisely stops short of amnesty by requiring immigrant workers to eventually return home.
No one expects immigration reform to sail through Congress. But the Bush approach is a wise plan that deserves a fair hearing and swift passage.