They always say Hispanics do jobs that other Americans won’t do.
Believe it. You even see it in Congress. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) is getting ready to do something that none of his non-Hispanic colleagues are the least bit anxious to do: introduce a bill calling for comprehensive immigration reform.
Why the hesitation? Simple: grabbing hold of this thorny issue is a sure way to lose friends and infuriate people.
Here are three things to keep in mind about the legislation:
(1) It will likely be the template for what Gutierrez recently predicted would be a rebooting of the immigration debate in Congress during March and April of 2010. Other reform ideas are sure to follow from all quarters but, for the most part, they’ll all be attempts at addition or subtraction from the starting point of the Gutierrez bill. That’s only fair since no one else has stepped forward with competing legislation, and it makes this bill all the more important.
(2) It represents an admirable shift to the middle of the road by Gutierrez, who, five years ago, was simply talking about unconditional amnesty for 12 million illegal immigrants with nary a word about beefed up borders, background checks, or assimilating immigrants — all necessary parts of reform. Now the Illinois congressman seems to understand that, for many Americans, the borders have to be secured before anything is done about those illegal immigrants who are already here.
(3) It has a little bit of everything — the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good — more effective border enforcement and a conditional path to legalization for illegal immigrants. The bad — a possible end to workplace raids under the guise of advocating more “humane interior enforcement” and the omission of any plan for additional guest workers. The ugly — protection for U.S. workers against competition from illegal workers and an emphasis on family reunification as opposed to what should be emphasized: workforce needs.
Other provisions include improving employer verification systems, managing future flows of workers, ensuring an agricultural workforce, instituting a DREAM Act to give college and vocational students a shot at earned legal status, and promoting the integration of immigrants into society.
Some of this is worthy of support; some of it isn’t. We need to provide a pathway to legalization for at least some of the undocumented, but it can’t be a cakewalk; those who broke our laws have to make amends and get right with the system. At the same time, without guest workers, pro-business Republicans won’t sign on so Gutierrez will have to get most of his fellow Democrats on board — a near impossibility given how Blue Dog conservatives feel about anything that looks like “amnesty.”
Still, as difficult as the road ahead may be, Gutierrez deserves credit for at least kicking off the conversation, especially since others who claim to support comprehensive immigration reform can’t seem to walk it like they talk it.
Take New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, who last summer promised immigration activists that he’d have a bill ready to go by Labor Day. The Democrat even spelled out the principles that would form the basis of the legislation. But Labor Day came and went, and still there’s been no bill from Schumer.
It’s a safe bet that Schumer decided to hold the legislation to give the Senate time to wrap up the complicated health care debate. Or maybe he never cared much about immigration in the first place, beyond his desire to use it to help drive a wedge between Hispanic voters and the Republican Party.
In any case, it now seems as if Americans will finally have a debate over one of the most difficult but yet most important subjects of our time. In the past, we’ve seen members of Congress demagogue the immigration issue for their own political benefit. We’ve seen self-righteous name-calling in both directions, the attempts to oversimplify a complicated topic, and the hardheaded refusal to negotiate toward a common solution. We’ve seen a stubborn insistence on getting the whole loaf instead of settling for half, and the self-righteousness that comes from thinking you’re right and everyone else is wrong.
What we haven’t seen much of up to now is leadership. Let’s hope we catch a glimpse of it this time around.