In Our View: 'Help Wanted' or 'Keep Out'?

The issue of immigration has no easy solution, but Congress needs to work on it

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Among the things that Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, said Thursday during a meeting with a small group of constituents, one in particular should resonate with voters: "I think we need to earn credibility. I don't think the American people really trust us on immigration, nor should they."

Herrera Beutler was speaking about the possibility of Congress coming up with changes to immigration law. And she was speaking from the perspective of being a congresswoman when that body's approval rating is at record low levels. The truth is, the American people probably wouldn't trust Congress with changing the oil on their car at this point.

Because of that, it is instructive to consider the differing approaches that are inherent in the immigration discussion. Last year, the Democrat-led Senate passed a sweeping bill designed to address many of the underlying issues of immigration reform, but the bill went nowhere in the Republican-led House. That's because Republicans are favoring a step-by-step approach to immigration — addressing items such as tightened border security, increased legal immigration and an eventual path to citizenship, one item at a time.

The preference for a piecemeal approach likely is fallout, in part, from the still-contentious debate over health care reform. Among the lessons from the Affordable Care Act is that many Americans find sweeping reform too big of a pill to swallow. But a one-at-a-time approach to immigration also could have some drawbacks.

"If we start with the most volatile issue from the start, it may tank the whole process," Herrera Beutler said. With an estimated 11 million immigrants in the United States illegally, the country can't afford for the process to be tanked again.

Immigration will be a major topic for Congress this year, and it will be important to the Northwest — especially in the agriculture-dominated eastern portions of Washington and Oregon. Many industries rely upon undocumented workers, even as the country is ramping up efforts to keep such workers out. As the (Spokane) Spokesman-Review wrote last year: "Our nation needs to resolve the contradictory 'Help Wanted' and 'Keep Out' messages we send across our borders."

In 2010, President Obama signed into law the Southwest Border Security Bill, providing $600 million to beef up security along the United States' border with Mexico. By most reliable accounts, the efforts have helped reduce the number of illegal border crossings, yet completely securing the border remains a far-fetched notion.

Additional immigration issues would have been addressed by last year's Senate bill, which would have allowed unauthorized immigrants currently in the United States to apply for "registered provisional immigrant" status. That would have required undocumented immigrants to pay a $1,000 fine that would have allowed them to stay in the country but not receive federal benefits. After 10 years, they could become permanent residents.

Complex issues have no easy solutions, and regardless of which philosophy wins out — Democrats' sweeping reform or Republicans' step-by-step approach — immigration must be addressed. The Census Bureau estimates that net international migration will increase by roughly 20 million people over the next two decades — about twice the number believed to have immigrated to the United States between 1890 and 1910. Because of that, Congress needs to stop hoping the issue will simply go away.