Suddenly the issue of illegal immigration is back in the air. Politicians on the left and right, as well as business, labor and grass-roots protesters, are all insisting we cannot live with the status quo.
Last month, hundreds of "freedom riders" -- legal and illegal laborers from many nations -- crisscrossed the United States on buses, drawing attention to the plight of the undocumented. In the California recall race, the bill allowing illegal migrants to get a driver's license came to symbolize the much larger immigration issue that roils the state. All the Democratic presidential candidates have proposed plans to increase immigration quotas while legalizing some share of the 9 million illegal migrants already working in the U.S. And it isn't only liberals clamoring for change: Over the summer, several Republican members of Congress put forward legislation on the subject -- and more is expected.
It isn't an easy issue, as Californians are well aware. Anyone who values fairness and respects the rule of law can see the problem with simply winking at our immigration code and rewarding those who violate it. But at the same time, it makes no sense to try to avoid reality. In the long run, that can only boomerang.
That reality is this: The U.S. needs these laborers. The work they do is essential to our prosperity -- our need will only expand in the decades to come. As the labor force grows older and more middle class, citizens will be even less willing to work as busboys and in the fields. And no serious political thinker believes it makes sense to deport the millions of these laborers already here -- that's a nonstarter for both economic and humanitarian reasons. Either immigrant workers will come illegally and live underground -- a vast black market for labor with all the problems that creates for them and the communities they settle in -- or we can regularize and regulate the flow, for their benefit and ours.
The question is how exactly we should go about that. As moving as the freedom riders and their rallies may be, sympathy alone can't guide us through this thicket. A blanket amnesty doesn't seem right or fair -- and anyone can understand why many voters want to think twice before extending to undocumented workers the rights and public services usually reserved for legal residents. We need to get control of our borders, and the last thing we want to encourage is a large population in the habit of ignoring the law.
But what's interesting about the proposals surfacing now in the presidential race and in Washington is that they all more or less agree on the outlines of a solution. Call it the new consensus on immigration reform.
At the heart of the consensus is a deal between Democrats and Republicans -- and, by extension, between business and unions backed by immigrant advocates. Businesses facing labor shortages want a regulated "guest worker" program to enlarge the pipeline bringing needed laborers into the U.S., while unions and immigrant advocates want to create a way for the undocumented who are already here -- working and paying taxes -- to come out of the shadows, gaining access to public services and eventually citizenship. But -- and both sides recognize this -- neither of these provisions can stand alone.
For one thing, neither alone would pass muster in Congress: Republicans would block legalization and Democrats would block a guest-worker program. And neither measure would work alone, either: If we legalize those already here but don't create a legal pipeline big enough to supply the workers we need to fill essential agricultural and service jobs, illegal migrants will continue to pour into the country to do that work. And in a few years we'll have to legalize another batch, making a mockery of our quotas and the rule of law.
In the months before 9/11, recognizing that they had to work together, business and labor were crafting a package that combined the two ideas -- a package President Bush was ready to endorse. The attacks stalled the deal, but it is being revived now, more or less intact and an assumed point of departure for anyone addressing the issue. That in itself is extraordinary, and it puts us well down the road to sensible reform.
The new proposals on the table grapple with a next set of issues: how exactly would willing employers find willing workers (through a centralized government job-match program, for example, or on a more market-oriented electronic registry, or some other way); how could we ensure that the initiative did not undercut U.S. workers (by requiring employers to advertise to Americans first, setting a minimum wage or through some other safeguard); how could we enforce those regulations; who should be eligible for legalization; what exactly should be asked of the workers in return for citizenship (all the proposals recognize they would have to earn that right) and more.