CALIFORNIA'S TWO SENATORS HAVE not distinguished themselves in recent years on immigration issues, but this week it has been heartening to see them on the correct side of the momentous debate in the Senate. California is an iconic state of immigrants in this iconic nation of immigrants, and its representatives in Washington should be on the side of enlightened reform.
Within the last few weeks, Democrats Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein have gone from skeptical to supportive on comprehensive reform. In late February, when the Senate began to confront in earnest the issue of a guest-worker program for current and future immigrants, Boxer and Feinstein weren't biting. Feinstein only would support an agricultural guest-worker program, despite having rejected a somewhat similar initiative in April 2005.
But this week, both senators came out swinging in favor of a broader guest-worker program. Feinstein has been especially inspiring. Two of her amendments won approval in the Judiciary Committee: the agricultural guest-worker program and a measure to criminalize building border tunnels.
And in an eloquent speech on the floor of the Senate on Thursday, she pointed out that the chamber's compromise bill (in contrast with the measure passed by the House) is a security-enhancing bill that also addresses "the very real needs of our economy." Feinstein drew on her experience studying the agricultural industry -- she has met with farm owners and farmworkers. She talked about asking each of California's 58 county welfare departments to post job openings in agriculture in a push to attract U.S. workers, only to find that not one person responded to the advertisements.
Feinstein went on to praise the much-demonized undocumented workers at the center of the debate. Speaking of one family, the Plascencias, she said: "This family has worked hard to achieve the financial security their children now enjoy. This includes a home they purchased three years ago in San Bruno. They own their car. They have medical insurance. And they have paid their taxes. It is very clear to me, and I think to a majority of Americans, that this family has embraced the American dream, and their continued presence in our country would do much to enhance the values we hold dear."
Feinstein acknowledged the importance of the moment: "We have an opportunity to chart a new destiny for a lot of people." And she and Boxer have an opportunity to chart a new legacy for themselves -- as senators who were on the right side of history.