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Restart Immigration Talks

June 16, 2003

Those in Washington's corridors of powers seldom feel the sweeping effects of massive undocumented immigration. But cities and towns across America grapple with the problem every day. It crowds inner-city classrooms and packs the strawberry fields that cry for cheap labor. It creates a stomping clamor in jammed county hospital wards and a whisper in hundreds of city parks where Spanish-speaking nannies congregate as they care for the children of working parents.

As illegal immigration spreads beyond familiar places like California, Texas, Illinois, Florida and New York to states like North Carolina, Arkansas, Utah, Georgia, Virginia and Kansas, it forces local officials to invent ways to deal with the daily comings and goings of millions. More than three dozen states have passed laws that allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses or that reduce college fees for children brought illegally to the United States.

But as ingenious and compassionate as much of this piecemeal lawmaking may be, immigration should be, principally, a federal concern. The national policy -- with its complex social, political and economic ramifications -- should be run by our chief executive.

So President Bush must heed a message from the states and renew his talks with Mexico, the country that sends the United States the largest number of immigrants. With experts saying economic and social pressures for stepped-up migration are building south of the border, and before summer's heat can heighten the danger of illegal border crossings, this is the time for Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox to discuss anew an accord that fosters legal, orderly, safe and predictable immigration.

They talked on this topic before, only to be thrown off course by global terrorism, U.S. military actions overseas and hard feelings about Mexico not supporting the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But the U.S.-Mexico immigration problem won't go away. Bush and Fox must figure out what to do with the millions of Mexicans living in America illegally, what is an acceptable number of temporary workers and how to ensure Mexico's cooperation on border safety and enforcement and terrorism-related security measures.

For real immigration reform to occur, many voices must be heard -- from business, labor, religious and ethnic communities and other quarters. And it clearly will be better if the presidents start their conversation now, before the acrimonious effects of an American political season are added to an already volatile mix.

If the two national leaders listen, they'll hear a murmur from coast to coast from officials and ordinary people alike: Immigration matters greatly, and smart leaders will not shy away from setting a national policy on it.

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