Wanted: An Intelligent Debate Over Immigration Reform

If you thought the debate over health care reform was polarized, emotional, and fraught with roadblocks, just wait until Congress re-ignites -- perhaps as early as in the next several days -- the debate over immigration reform.

The spark is likely to come from Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-NY, who plans to introduce a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the coming weeks. Schumer has spelled out the goals of the legislation: curtailing illegal immigration, achieving control of our borders, creating a biometric employee verification system, requiring illegal immigrants to become legalized, keeping family reunification a priority, encouraging the best and brightest to immigrate to the United States while discouraging temporary guest workers, and making it easier to come legally.

Those who remember how badly Congress mishandled the immigration reform issue the last time it took a swing at it -- in Spring 2007 -- can’t be eager for an encore performance.

Last time, there was too much name-calling and posturing and too little compromise and flexibility. There was too much pandering to the extremes in each party and too little time spent trying to understand the other side’s concerns. Finally, there was too much all-or-nothing negotiating and too little willingness to settle for half a loaf as opposed to none. The American people didn’t do much better as they argued out the issue in barbershops and at water coolers, on talk radio and in the blogosphere.

That being the case, there are things that were missing in the immigration debate the last time, and it would behoove both sides to make sure they were in the mix in the next go-around.

Accountability. Holding average Americans accountable for helping to create the illegal immigration problem by relying on illegal labor for a softer existence and better quality of life. If you don’t have an illegal immigrant working for you as a gardener, housekeeper, or nanny, chances are you know someone who does.

Empathy. Reminding Americans that most of them are just two or three generations off the boat, and that -- contrary to what they tell themselves -- their immigrant grandparents were likewise scorned and treated as scapegoats, even if they came legally. Then, as now, the concern wasn’t how they came but who they were.