Making their voices heard

DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES hosted the most awe-inspiring political rally in recent California history Saturday as an estimated half a million people came together peacefully. The ostensible reason was to protest harsh anti-immigration legislation being considered in Washington, but the rally’s broader purpose was to celebrate immigrants and reclaim the initiative in the debate from strident anti-immigrant voices.

Church and advocacy groups, unions and local political leaders have rightly mobilized against a bill passed in December by the House that would build a wall along the border, turn all illegal immigrants -- and those who aid them -- into felons and do nothing to address the U.S. economy’s need for more foreign workers. It’s one of those classic pieces of legislation unencumbered by any relation to the real world, existing in a fantastical parallel universe in which the United States can deport about 11 million undocumented workers, let alone avoid suffering an economic calamity as a result.

Starting today, the Senate is debating alternative immigration reforms that might actually make things better, not worse. The country needs some legal avenue to, as President Bush said in his radio address Saturday, “match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill jobs that Americans will not do.” Barring these laborers from being eligible for citizenship down the road would be a radical betrayal of American ideals. Turning those currently working these jobs into fugitives, as the House bill would do, is suicidal.

Saturday’s rally was a poignant drama featuring an endless stream of immigrants and their supporters wearing white and waving American and Mexican flags (sometimes artfully blended). As a tactical matter, the foreign flags may backfire, playing into the hands of those who misread these immigrants as a “fifth column” with mixed loyalties, as well as those who confuse sensible immigration reform with government charity. Bush’s earlier move to engage Mexico in immigration talks also fed the impression that finding a way to legalize the status of undocumented workers here amounted to asking Americans to sacrifice their own hard work for lawbreakers.


But that is nonsense. At the end of the day, the United States needs to bring its immigration policies in line with reality for its own sake, not for the well-being of foreigners -- not even those earnest marchers in Saturday’s rally. All Americans benefit from the labor of the millions of hardworking immigrants. And all Americans see their democracy’s moral firmament (not to mention their security) erode when the nation willingly relies on an undocumented and even fugitive underclass of millions.