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Common-Sense Immigration Talks

Common-Sense Immigration Talks

By Ruben Navarrette - March 20, 2011

SAN DIEGO -- When he changed parties a few months ago, Texas state Rep. Aaron Pena made waves. Now, as he tries to take a grown-up approach to the immigration issue, the Democrat-turned-Republican is making sense.

As when Pena told me, "Part of the reason I'm doing this is to get the public to stop talking out of both sides of their mouths. We're responsible because we offer (illegal immigrants) jobs."

Or when he surveyed the array of immigration-related bills in the Texas Legislature and declared, "A lot of what's out there is driven by racial or ethnic animosity."

And when he suggested, "Part of the reason that Washington ignores the issue is because Americans haven't decided what they want."

As someone who lived in Texas for five years, I can attest that making sense is not something lawmakers in the Lone Star State do much of when it comes to immigration. Pena has the benefit of being from the real world of the Rio Grande Valley, where common sense is practically a natural resource.

Americans never seem to have enough common sense on hand when we talk about immigration. If we did, Texans might be able to reconcile the contradiction of boasting that their state is, according to the 2010 Census, the fastest growing in the country while not acknowledging that one of the factors driving that positive trend is immigration.

There are even greater contradictions when it comes to the part of the immigration debate that has captured Pena's attention: guest workers.

First, let's clarify our terms. A "guest worker" is not someone who participates in what the George W. Bush administration proposed -- a massive regularization of status for millions of undocumented individuals who are already living in the United States. Nor is it what the Republican-controlled Utah Legislature recently set in motion by passing a bill that would issue a two-year work permit to illegal immigrants who prove that they have been living and working in the state, can pass a criminal background check, and pay fines of up to $2,500.

You can call this arrangement whatever you like -- "amnesty," "earned legal status," etc. Just don't call it a guest worker program. That's not what it is because the people who would be impacted are already here.

By contrast, guest workers are temporary foreign laborers who are brought into the United States -- perhaps 200,000 per year -- to work for a specific industry. When the agreement expires, they're supposed to go home.

The first U.S. president to rely on foreign workers was Abraham Lincoln. Industries were facing labor shortages during the Civil War and, at Lincoln's urging, Congress passed in 1864 the Act to Encourage Immigration. The bill allowed employers to recruit foreign workers and pay their way to America.

That's just what the doctor ordered for Texas, Pena believes. He has filed a bill that would create something called the Texas Commission on Immigration and Migration. The commission would be charged with exploring the ins and outs of implementing a guest worker program in the state.

"It's a stopgap measure," Pena explained, "until the feds get their act together. I'd rather have this than some of the draconian stuff being discussed around the country. I wanted to look for something pragmatic."

Pena was emphatic that, under his bill, those illegal immigrants currently residing in Texas would not be eligible to participate in the program unless they first went back home.

"Otherwise," he said, "you're telling people it's OK if they cut in line."

Still, the contradictions over guest workers are glaring and numerous. Americans act like they don't want immigrants around -- except when they do. They want to get rid of foreigners -- except when they want to bring more in. They complain about how immigrants are changing the culture -- then they set the stage for even more changes by importing more people. Finally, they take exception to the idea that there are jobs they won't do -- then they bring in foreign workers to do precisely those kinds of jobs.

This must be what Pena meant when he said that Americans haven't decided what we want from the immigration system. Every time you hear about politicians trying to bring more guest workers into the United States, you have to ask: Is the problem that we have too many foreign laborers or not enough?

Utah said, "Not enough." So Texas, what say y'all?

ruben@rubennavarrette.com

Copyright 2011, Washington Post Writers Group

Ruben Navarrette

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