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The immigration reform shuffle

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By
From page A11 | December 13, 2012 |

SAN DIEGO — Recently, dozens of representatives from the business, religious and law enforcement communities convened in Washington to declare that comprehensive immigration reform must be the first piece of business for the new Congress.

I agree with the goal, and the timetable. And I even thought about joining those stakeholders at their meeting. Then I realized that I could learn more about the reality of immigration reform from talking to my gardener.

More on what we talked about later.

But first, if the follies and foibles of states such as Arizona taught us anything, it’s that the solution to our immigration problem must come from Washington. And yet, as should be clear to those of us who keep a close eye on the immigration debate, the last place likely to produce a workable solution to this issue is Washington.

Our nation’s capital is full of people – in government, media and advocacy groups – who are sure they have all the answers. They aren’t about to entertain the possibility that when it comes to immigration, they know less than the folks who live in Brownsville, Texas, or Pueblo, Colo., or Tucson, Ariz.

In Congress, neither Democrats nor Republicans like this debate, which is why they’ve consistently put it on the back burner. Democrats have to keep the peace between the labor movement, much of which is not enthusiastic about legalizing the undocumented, and Latinos, most of whom are. Republicans have to referee the battle between business, which wants workers, and nativists who worry that immigrants are hurting the country.

Still, the legislative branch runs on pressure points. Kick off a debate on immigration and you can be sure that the special interests are going to have their interests served.

Last year, while Congress was debating a bill by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, that would have made it mandatory for employers to check the immigration status of potential hires through E-Verify – the federal government’s less-than-perfect electronic employment verification system – I visited an avocado grove north of San Diego. The farmer told me that the bill would kill his industry because most avocado pickers are undocumented. But he wasn’t worried, he said, because “we have people in Washington working on that for us.” The farm lobbyists did their magic. And before long, Smith had inserted new language carving out a special exemption giving agribusiness a three-year waiver on the verification requirement.

Now, as Congress reboots the immigration debate, there is lots of smoke and mirrors. Smith is back again. He recently pushed through the House his STEM Jobs Act, which simply switches 55,000 “diversity visas” for people from underrepresented countries to 55,000 visas for foreign students who earn advanced degrees in science, technology, engineering or mathematics.

This is Congress’ survival tactic when dealing with thorny issues. Lawmakers try to look like they’re doing something when they’re really not doing much of anything.

None of this seemed to matter much to my gardener. He’s a legal resident, but he has family, friends and neighbors who are undocumented. Like a dozen other immigrants I’ve interviewed over the past year or so, he doesn’t care about citizenship or voting. What he cares about – and what he says a lot of his undocumented brethren care about – is a different piece of paper: a driver’s license. Without one of those, Latino immigrants in California risk having their car towed whenever they’re pulled over by police for running a stop sign or having a busted tail light. They can get the car out, but it will cost them hundreds of dollars plus a fine for driving without a license. And if they’re undocumented, they’re likely to be deported.

This isn’t federal business. States issue driver’s licenses. But perhaps Congress could make the process smoother. That is, if members really care about giving immigrants what they want, as opposed to telling them what they should have. Besides, what good does it do if Democrats and immigrant advocacy groups take a hard line on Congress granting citizenship, and the entire debate over legalization comes unraveled because of it?

But this is just a conversation with a gardener. What does he know? The smart folks in Washington are mulling over the immigrant experience in America. He’s living it.

Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

Ruben Navarrette

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