Sunday, November 29, 2009

Good luck to Obama on immigration reform; he's going to need it

This editorial appears in the Nov. 24, 2009, Yakima Herald-Republic.

Pushing ahead with comprehensive immigration reform next year is laudable given the crowded agenda that President Barack Obama and his administration has embraced. But we wonder if the White House can deliver on this reform next year in the wake of the hotly contested health care legislation it's now dealing with.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said recently that giving legal status to an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants will be an integral part of the immigration overhaul. For these illegal immigrants to gain legal status, they would have to register, pay fines and all taxes they owe, pass a criminal background check and learn English.

From our vantage point, any immigration reform is dependent on making sure the border between the U.S. and Mexico is secure. It also requires tougher enforcement laws against illegal immigrants and employers who knowingly hire them.

In the face of rising unemployment, Napolitano said the enhanced enforcement will actually protect American workers from being displaced by lower-paid, easily exploited illegal immigrants and will help the economy "as these immigrants become full-paying taxpayers."

The issue of border security drew immediate criticism from some Republicans, who point to a significant gap in physical impediments to entering the country illegally.

"How can they claim that enforcement is done when there are more than 400 open miles of border with Mexico?" asked Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, the senior Republican on the House Judiciary Committee.

Napolitano argued that security has improved, with more than 600 miles of border fence now in place and the Border Patrol having been increased to 20,000 officers.

Immigration reform is as important a topic here in Central Washington as is health care reform, perhaps even greater. With Hispanics accounting for more than 40 percent of Yakima County's population, much is at stake. Guest-worker details in any reform initiative will be especially critical for the Yakima Valley's agriculture industry, which estimates that from 50 percent to 70 percent of its farm-worker labor pool is here illegally.

The failure of President George W. Bush and Congress to pass reform in 2007 underscores how difficult it will be for the Democrats under Obama to succeed in navigating the thicket of opposition that comes with any measure offering legalization provisions.

The Bush administration suffered from what the public perceived was a failed policy to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. It's a troubling question: How can the nation offer citizenship to those already here illegally if the U.S. can't stop the flow of undocumented immigrants from crossing our border?

For good reason, if the White House can't satisfy that overriding concern, immigration reform will never be taken seriously.

* Members of the Yakima Herald-Republic editorial board are Michael Shepard, Bob Crider, Spencer Hatton and Karen Troianello.

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