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The Cleveland Plain Dealer

With More People Coming, U.S. Needs A Plan

Elizabeth Sullivan

No immigration compromise can ever be fair for everyone. That's why Congress is about to take the big duck, again. That's why the system will continue to be driven by lawlessness, exploitation and fear.

And that's why this nation will fail to retool its immigration laws for a 21st-century economy that demands higher skill sets to compete for the jobs and inventions of the future.

As corrosive to this nation's character as is the current lawless status quo that's put an estimated 12 million people in the shadows earning sub-par wages, it's even worse that we can't muster the wisdom and political courage to do something about it.

It's not that the latest compromise hammered out in private between select lawmakers and the White House holds all the answers. Its flaws are numerous; its loopholes, likewise.

Yet even critics admit something must be done — that neither "amnesty" nor "return to sender" are full answers.

Despite new attention to border enforcement, as many as half a million more people may slip through every year. Once in, they join the fast-growing underground of sub-rosa workers who propel equally lawless trends in document forgery and identity theft.

Yet the irony is that these "illegals" aren't unwelcome. They are very much wanted — by some.

U.S. employers can't hire these undocumented workers fast enough — delighted to find tomato pickers and sheepherders and ditch diggers eager to work for less than the prevailing wage. In fact, it's exactly this illegal status that depresses wages from New Mexico's construction industry to nursery businesses in Lake County, Ohio.

So the immigration debate is wrongly framed. It's not just about the 12 million here illegally. It's about the 12 million who will probably get in, in the future.

No matter how many miles of fencing or how many old cars we mound next to Mexico, as long as the jobs are here, they will come.

Under the current system, enforcement penalties against employers rarely are levied because identity documents are so easily forged, or ignored.

In this regard, some ideas in the current proposal, on fingerprinting and other biometric measures and "secure" electronic identity cards, offer real promise at turning enforcement around. So do its careful mechanisms for transforming today's illegals into tomorrow's legals — involving fines, fees, long waits for possible citizenship and requirements to keep renewing paperwork and to study English.

This is not amnesty. It is logic.

Sweeping the desirable small fry off the table will help end the waste of today's enforcement lottery that tends to go after what my colleague Phillip Morris calls the "low-hanging fruit" of the easy grabs instead of the roughest customers who know how to disappear.

The priority should be on the real threats, the ones plotting harm to this nation. That becomes harder with every enforcement sweep that handcuffs a 16-year-old and pushes the bulk of otherwise law-abiding "illegals" further underground, where they'll hesitate to turn in the truly malevolent ones.

At the same time, border security remains the perverse step-cousin to national security, not a critical component. The nation may be trying to hire more border agents, but Iraq contractor DynCorp International is using taxpayer money to offer twice the pay of current agents so they'll quit and work in Iraq, the Washington Times reports.

Framing the debate around "legal" versus "illegal," meanwhile, clouds the real contributions that immigrants make. In a few places where immigrants land, such as Painesville, Ohio, some even roll out the welcome mat — because they see the worth of productive workers with family values.

Immigrants still offer what they always have to this nation — an economic boost to struggling communities, the vibrancy of new blood, the drive to succeed and the motivation to look after not just family members and friends, but the larger communities in which they dwell.

Copyright 2007 The Cleveland Plain Dealer

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