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Sensible immigration plan is taking shape in Washington

Froma Harrop

Publication: The Day

Published April 12. 2013 4:00AM

Not only is a Senate plan for reforming the immigration program smart, it may actually become law. Those two things don't necessarily go together. That it is bipartisan would seem a near miracle.

The "Group of Eight" reformers - led by Republican Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York - would demand concessions from both open-border and closed-border hardliners. Most importantly, they are the right concessions.

Concession No. 1 is that most of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants would be able to continue working in this country without harassment by authorities. For Republicans, Graham said firmly on "Meet the Press," "the politics of self-deportation are behind us."

Concession No. 2 is that ethnic politics would not take the driver's seat in formulating the rules.

The collapse of Latino support for Republican candidates no doubt unfroze the party's widespread opposition to dealing with undocumented workers in a humane way. Gone, we pray, is the party's tolerance for hostility toward Latinos tinged with racism.

But identity politics remain tiresome, whatever group is playing them. Former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat, did not rise to the occasion in this forum by saying, "I'm a Hispanic-American," to preface his complaint that the plan's path to citizenship was "too burdensome." "Make it achievable," he said. "I've seen reports of this 13 years to get there."

Graham properly responded that "we're going to control our border, and there will be border security tied to the pathway to citizenship." And if security isn't tied to the pathway, "there will be no deal."

He's right. This can't be 1986 all over again, when an immigration law legalized millions of illegal entrants while leaving the door open for millions more. In any case, most illegal immigrants come here for work, and those now here can still have that while they wait.

Concession No. 3 is to the reality that the Mexican border is not the heart of the immigration problem. The workplace is. That's why the plan requires all employers to eventually use the E-verify system to ensure that a prospective hire is entitled to work in the United States. The 1986 failure allowed job applicants to present easily counterfeited Social Security cards.

The reforms recognize that up to 40 percent of illegal immigrants in the U.S. entered the country with valid visas but didn't leave after they expired. The plan would launch an electronic system to track those overstaying their visas.

The one nervous-making concession is labor's to business in a new low-skilled foreign worker program. It goes beyond traditional farm work to include jobs in nursing homes, restaurants and hotels.

The usual way to attract workers is to raise their pay. If employers complain that they can't afford to do so without raising their prices, what of it? Where is there a right to below-market labor - and if there is one, why doesn't it apply also to chemists and lawyers?

The proposed new W visa program could start admitting up to 200,000 permanent low-skilled workers by 2020. That is not a small number. The deal apparently adds some protections for U.S. workers. Let us hope.

One silly demand from some senators is that employers and immigrants pay higher fines and fees to help cover the costs of beefed-up border security. Arizona Republican John McCain says he doesn't want the plan to impose "additional costs to the taxpayers." Since when did national security have to pay for itself?

All in all, the Gang of Eight's blueprint takes a practical, effective and fair approach to immigration reform. President Obama is on board, so it's time to get this done.

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