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The Economist: simple solution to a complex question


I've just read Helen Thorpe's new book, "Just Like Us," the story of four Denver teenagers whom she followed through their senior year in high school and four years at the University of Denver. All of the girls are Latina, two here legally and two undocumented, the latter through no fault of their own.

They were brought here by their parents when they were very young, but the contrast in the opportunities available to them relative to the other two girls is stark.

As I thought about the foolishness of an immigration policy that denies opportunity to young men and women who have grown up in the U.S., I turned to the report issued by the Strategic Issues Program at DU titled "Architecture for Immigration Reform." It lays out a 25-step process for dealing with our need for immigrant workers - at both ends of the pay and education scale - and for legalizing the 12 million or so who came here illegally. I was struck with how politics has complicated a relatively straightforward solution to a complex problem.

When the immigration topic comes up in the Q&A after a speech, I always ask, "Who in the room is not an immigrant or a descendent of an immigrant?" In an audience of 500 or 1,000, a few hands will go up. "Are you American Indian?" I ask. When they nod yes I remind them that they, too, are immigrants. They just got here 13,000 years or so before the rest of us.

I think it is critical to keep this fact in mind - we are all immigrants or descendents of immigrants, primarily people who came here for opportunity and the chance for a better life for their children. My guess is that the United States is the only country in the world where citizenship confers nationality. It certainly doesn't in Russia.

We are all Americans, albeit from a multitude of ethnic backgrounds, which is why I think the move to refer to hyphenated Americans is dangerous, as though some people are real Americans while others are only semi-Americans.

My simple solution to the immigration problem is as follows.

• First, offer two types of visas - one for people coming to the U.S. temporarily (tourists, students, temporary workers) and a different visa for those who wish to become citizens. Make them easy to obtain.
• Second, set up a robust guest worker program for agricultural workers, construction workers, workers in the tourist industry, etc., as well as for the highly educated technical specialists of which we have a shortage.
• Third, after the guest worker program is in place, offer a route to citizenship for people who are here without documentation. Start with the children, who are undocumented through no fault of their own. It is to everyone's advantage to be sure they are well-educated, trained for the jobs that will be available so they become taxpayers and productive citizens.
• Fourth, require every job applicant to have an identification card that includes a Social Security number, to ensure they are legal and pay taxes. This may mean that those of us who are already citizens also have to have one, but I can't see that as more onerous than the current need for a driver's license or Social Security number.

I think the current blather about immigrants taking jobs that "real" Americans need and want is a red herring. A case in point: agricultural workers in Western Colorado. Of the 200 or so collecting unemployment insurance who were sent by the government employment agency to interview for jobs, most didn't apply and only one was still on the job at the end of the first week.

So, make it easy to come. If we need to limit the number of immigrants who want to become citizens, do it by lottery to be fair. Insist that they learn English and pass a citizenship exam. That shouldn't be hard - immigrants have been learning English and enriching our culture by adding their traditions for generations.

Then, put the immigration issue behind us and celebrate the fact that we live in a country people want to come to rather than escape from.
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Tucker Hart Adams

Tucker Hart Adams, president of the Adams Group, monitored and analyzed the Colorado economy for 30 years. She can be reached via her website, coloradoeconomy.com.

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