Sunday January 27, 2013

Cultural tides are shifting in America in a variety of ways, and prominent among them is the attitude toward illegal immigration. Years of bashing "illegals" -- which was a thinly disguised attack on Latinos and other "takers’’ -- created a backlash not just among minorities but among all Americans who value fairness and are cognizant of America’s history as an immigrant nation. This cultural shift must be reflected in a transformation of laws related to immigration in 2013.

An Associated Press-GFK poll released last week reported that 62 percent of Americans favor providing a way for illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens, an increase from 50 percent when the AP last conducted a poll on this subject 21Ž2 years ago. Democrats have a 41 percent to 34 percent advantage as the party more trusted to handle immigration, as opposed to the 46 percent to 41 percent advantage held by Republicans in 2010. These results were fairly predictable given the election results of last November 6 when Latinos went overwhelmingly for President Obama, defying shameful efforts in some states like Florida to keep them away from the polls. This constituted a less than surprising rejection of "self-deport" candidate Mitt Romney and Republican proposals centered around punitive, easily abused laws encouraging racial profiling.

Washington Republicans may not be any more sympathetic to Latinos than they were before the election but they do know realistically that they won’t win any presidential elections for the foreseeable future if they continue to alienate a fast-growing American demographic.


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But while Republicans signal a willingness to support reform of immigration laws, the House’s point person on this issue, Representative Raul Labrador of Idaho, says he cannot support a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. That stance may play well in red state Idaho, but it is a loser in most of the nation. That pathway to citizenship is a fundamental demand of the president’s and no reform package can or should become law without it.

Deporting 12 million people is logistically impossible, but beyond that, punitive immigration laws have unintended consequences, as Georgia found out when crops went unharvested because it scared away the workers who harvested them. As the president said on Monday, punitive policies also cost the nation some of the youthful brain power it needs. Callous Republican opposition to the DREAM Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for the children of undocumented aliens, prompted the president last summer to defer action against any of these young people for two years, an inspired election year action that was also the right thing to do and must be made permanent.

Assertions that reform can’t happen until the border with Mexico is secure ring hollow given that post-9/11 border enforcement policies have slowed the rush of illegal immigrants to a trickle. What must happen is stricter regulations for the workplaces that currently exploit immigrant labor. If they are required to pay better wages to their workers, immigrant and otherwise, all will benefit.

Immigration is constitutionally the province of the federal government, and if real immigration reform becomes a reality after years of politically inspired delay in Washington, states like Alabama and Arizona would be less likely to launch their own half-baked "reform" efforts. Arizona’s "driving while Hispanic" law is the worst example of what can happen when Washington shirks its responsibilities.

There are reasons why immigrants -- Irish and Italian decades ago, Asian, African and Central American today -- have long wanted to come to the United States and see their children grow up here and become productive citizens. This remains the land of opportunity, and rather than focus only on punishing the illegal immigrants seeking that opportunity it is wiser to find ways for they and their children to contribute to making America an even better place for everyone who lives here.