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Mary Sanchez: GOP must make up its mind on immigration

Mary SanchezThe Kansas City Star

Yet another member of the Bush family has demonstrated an uncanny ability to flinch on immigration.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, has long advocated a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, roughly in line with current thinking of a bipartisan group in Congress. Yet in a new book he has written with Clint Bolick, "Immigration Wars," Bush has flip-flopped on the question of the path to citizenship.

"Those who violated the law can remain but cannot obtain the cherished fruits of citizenship," Bush and Bolick wrote.

That's disappointing, much like the failure of Jeb's brother George W. to push the bipartisan immigration reform bill his administration favored through Congress in 2007.

In interviews since the book's release, Jeb Bush has retraced and gone back to supporting avenues to citizenship.

To CNN, he had this to say: "Today the only path to come to this country other than family reunification is to come illegally. We need to create another category of legal immigration where there is actually a line. So if you could create that through a path to citizenship, I would support that."

Well, what's it going to be? It's important to know; Bush might be the next Republican nominee for president.

With Congress set to take up comprehensive immigration reform, there simply isn't time to waste on waffling. The Republican Party and its leading figures must decide: Are they going to join the movement for reform or are they going to keep up their long-standing campaign to demean undocumented immigrants?

For the last couple of decades, the conservative demagogues opposed to sensible immigration reform have worked hard to brand this issue as one of law and order. They have made an epithet out of an adjective -- "illegals" -- as a way to characterize undocumented immigrants as by nature criminal and, as such, unfit for U.S. citizenship.

Most Americans know better. Bush knows better too. A good portion of the book shows how deeply he understands the nuances of immigration law and policy. He discusses the fact that it is nearly impossible for many of the people who wind up illegally in the country to arrive legally.

He advocates clearing up the backlogs on visa requests based on family relationships by changing those systems and creating new avenues for legal immigration. He knows that many immigrants are seeking work and calls for doubling the number of work-based visas for both highly skilled and guest workers.

Let's recognize that most undocumented immigrants live among us to work; let's also acknowledge that American employers and consumers have benefited greatly from the low-wage labor these people provide.

OK, now we can talk about legal status.

Some Americans worry about the message it would send if we were to extend the possibility of citizenship to people who have broken the law to live in our country. One way to allay these fears is to reserve this chance for those immigrants with no criminal convictions, who don't have problems with domestic abuse or substance abuse, who have a work record, who are able and willing to support themselves and their families.

In recent days, Bush has stressed that he doesn't want to create incentives that might cause more people to come to this country illegally. But this too reveals a sleight of hand about what he clearly understands about the current immigration system.

If the U.S. truly wanted to eliminate the possibility of too many people illegally in the country it would fix the system, making it responsive to the needs of the economy. Allow those workers a legal way in.

The vast majority of people who are illegally in the country didn't chose that route because criminality is their natural disposition. They end up in that category because there wasn't a viable way for them to arrive legally. Congress can address this by reordering how and why visas are granted and holding businesses accountable for monitoring the immigrants they hire.

If there were a better route, a legal way, most people would have taken it. Bush admits this throughout his book. And endless individual stories of immigrants underscore that truth.

It's ridiculous and self-defeating that the policy debate about immigration is sidetracked by the question of who among the "illegal" people is worthy of citizenship.

Congress needs to act wisely, and sidestep this silly argument once and for all.

Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at msanchez@kcstar.com.


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