From the vacuum created by the Bush administration's failure to put forward any kind of immigration reform initiative, a remarkable piece of legislation has emerged. It isn't sponsored by any of the Congressional Democrats (who seem just as chary of burning their fingers on this hot potato as the neo-cons are) but instead by (trumpet salute, please) New Mexico's own Sen. Pete Domenici.
Domenici's bill has an interesting acronym, the “WISH Act.” I think it stands for “Welcoming Immigrants to a Secure Homeland,” but the emphasis is on the “Welcome.” In sponsoring the act, Domenici has taken a giant step away from the wild-eyed, fire-breathing wing of his own party and come up with the only approach that could ever resolve the problem of immigration reform.
His bill deserves to be supported by Democrats and by any groups interested in solving the dilemma with social justice. Of course, it will certainly be blasted by minutemen and others fond of making statements about immigrants that verge into racism. It will also draw fire from that lunatic fringe that actually wants to build a wall between Mexico and the United States (no kidding).
But it is the only piece of legislation out on the table at this time, floated by either party's Congressional representatives, that realistically grapples with the true dimensions of the immigration problem.
Let's cut to the chase. We have over 11 million workers in this country from foreign countries (mostly, but not exclusively, latinos) that are here without legal papers. They are here because they are desperate for work and because American businesses are desperate for workers. Any bill that ignores either side of that equation isn't grounded in reality.
Domenici proposes a guest worker program similar to ones we had in the decades following the Second World War. It's a common sense approach, and for awhile last year it was rumored that even Dubya favored it.
But Sen. Pete doesn't pretend, as many of his colleagues would, that the 11 million already here will simply go home (or alternatively, be deported home) to wait their turn at getting guest worker papers.
Instead, he proposes to permit immigrants already in the country illegally to apply for guest worker status—in other words, to be able to normalize their presence here; to come out from the shadows and not have to live in constant fear of la migra.
And for those who want to remain after six years as guest workers, his proposal creates a means for them to start the process of earning permanent resident status.
I don't know if his measure will pass. It will certainly be subjected to the full scrutiny of a Congressional process that rarely has produced sensible, just legislation. It will probably get amended, possibly in ways that make it far less palatable than it was at introduction.
All of that may be true—and yet I still think the senior senator from New Mexico deserves to be recognized for doing something honorable and gutsy. As the son of immigrants, he knows the power of the dream that is America and how it can animate humble people to do great things.
He also knows from his own life just how important the immigrants that come eagerly to the United States are to the constant revitalization of this country. And he realizes how seriously this country needs revitalization.
Last week, the Federal Reserve reported that average family incomes in the U.S. have actually fallen from 2001 to 2004 when adjusted for inflation. In 2001, the average American household had an income of $72,400. In 2004, that number had fallen to $70,700.
The economy is stagnant. We're locked in a hideously expensive, never-ending war with “terror” (not terrorists, not terrorism, but terror itself). We have mortgaged the country to the hilt and saddled our kids and grandkids with enormous debt. We are witnessing health care, education and housing becoming luxuries beyond the reach of many Americans.
And still the immigrants come. The dream still holds attraction. The WISH is powerful.
Faced with this situation, there are those who would turn immigrants away; build walls; turn inward. That has always been the temptation for fearful societies ... and it has always been the path downward to social decay and collapse.
Domenici knows this and has therefore cast his lot with those who have an alternative vision for our society. He would open our doors; he would offer abrazos, not handcuffs; he would place his confidence in the power of the dream. He would offer the newcomers what we have offered to millions and millions in past decades: a chance to work; a chance to experience freedom; a chance to fulfill a wish.
As a sop to those of both parties who have inappropriately injected concern over homeland security into the immigration discussion, the WISH Act does put some emphasis on border security. More border agents, tamper-resistant Social Security cards and added personnel to process student visa applications are to be funded by the act.
But the real security of a nation comes from within, not at its borders. There should be dozens of cosponsors for this measure, of both parties. It should be passed.