Voters agenda: Leadership vacuum on immigration

Published: Sunday, Oct. 21, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 6E

This country's immigration system is obsolete – with a rigid system of caps dating back to the 1950s that hamper legal immigration. It needs a major overhaul.

This issue is especially important in California, traditionally a magnet for immigration – from Central Valley farmworkers to forest workers to food processors to housekeepers to high-tech engineers to innovative researchers. Our culture and our economy have been forged by immigration – and are inevitably strained by our current broken system.

But our presidential candidates, instead of wholeheartedly embracing the challenge, raise immigration as a sort of no-win obligatory issue to appease certain groups of voters.

As a candidate in the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama made a promise to tackle immigration: "I cannot guarantee that it is going to be in the first 100 days. But what I can guarantee is that we will have in the first year an immigration bill that I strongly support and that I'm promoting. And I want to move that forward as quickly as possible."

That pledge remains unfulfilled. In September, Obama admitted this has been his " biggest failure." But he remains confident "we are going to accomplish that."

For his part, in last Tuesday's debate, Mitt Romney promised the same thing: "I'll get it done. I'll get it done, first year."

Some skepticism is in order.

Yet presidential leadership is needed more than ever to bridge real divides in American society over immigration. This country needs an immigration system for a new era that addresses three basic issues:

Border security

The United States has "net zero" migration for the first time since the 1960s.

Obama points out that the border is more secure "than at any time in the past 20 years" – 20,000 Border Patrol agents, intelligence analysts, increased seizures of illegal drugs, weapons, cash, and contraband. Deportations are at all-time record highs. His administration has worked on establishing a system to vet visa overstay records.

Romney's view is that, "We should field enough Border Patrol agents, complete a high-tech fence, and implement an improved exit verification system" – with the fence as his centerpiece. In Arizona, a 53-mile high-tech fence in Arizona cost $1 billion. We have a 2,000-mile border, making Romney's goal an expensive proposition. He needs to rethink it.

Both support a crackdown on employers. Obama stepped up enforcement, using audits of employment records, civil fines and debarment – and by promoting compliance tools, including the electronic E-Verify system for employers to confirm the immigration status of new hires. Romney supports Arizona's E-Verify system as a model.

Existing illegal immigrants

Both agree it's not possible to round up and deport 11 million people – about 5 million men, 4 million women and 2 million children.

For young people brought here as children, Obama supports the DREAM Act, which would give temporary legal status to those who arrived in the United States before age 16, graduated from a U.S. high school and have no criminal record. If they go to college or join the U.S. military, they could get a green card, a path to citizenship.

Romney says he would veto the DREAM Act, but would allow young people who serve honorably in the U.S. military "the chance to become permanent residents, and eventually citizens."

In the absence of congressional action, Obama is implementing temporary two-year deportation waivers, which Romney says he would honor but would not renew.

A major difference is that Obama would give adults a chance to work toward citizenship if they pay taxes, maintain steady employment, have clean criminal records and learn English – and admit they broke the law.

Romney favors what he calls "self-deportation" – making it difficult for adults to find jobs so "they'll make a decision to go to a place where they have better opportunities."

Future flows of immigration

Unfortunately, legal channels of immigration are few and inadequate to U.S. needs. Until we realistically address the need for future flows, illegal immigration will continue.

Both men are vague and cagey on how this country should flexibly meet its future needs – the pressing issue. Both say they want to ease country caps, make it easier for individuals trained at U.S. universities to get green cards and for farmers to hire temporary farmworkers legally.

Obama and Romney need to step up in providing the inspiration to get past the current polarized climate to get immigration reform done.

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