I drove to Southern California last week seeking a relaxing spring break, but instead I discovered something even more interesting: traveling through Los Angeles on March 25, I found a city at the epicenter of the national debate on immigration.

As I drove further south to San Diego, a city so close to the border that signs along its freeways warn motorists of undocumented immigrants darting across traffic lanes, the reminders of immigration’s significance to California continued.

March 25 was the day the national spotlight focused on Los Angeles. That day, an estimated 500,000 people marched through downtown LA protesting proposed federal legislation that would make felons of illegal immigrants and penalize those who help them. Throughout the next week, thousands of students walked out of school to march for immigrants’ rights. Plans for more protests continued even as news reports noted that Senate Democrats were moving to force lawmakers to decide Thursday whether the immigration bill should be considered for a vote on the Senate floor.

The week I was in LA, the Los Angeles Times was filled with coverage of immigration, from stories about the demonstrations, to tales of how top-rated Spanish-language radio DJs nicknamed “El Mandril” (The Baboon), “El Cucuy” (The Boogeyman) and “El Piolin” (Tweety Bird) helped mobilize half a million marchers. The radio waves buzzed with listeners and talk show hosts spouting inflammatory rhetoric. Over dinner with friends and in bars chatting with strangers, immigration was one of the main topics of conversation.

The more I heard and read, the more I started to formulate my own ideal immigration policy, based on the proposals Congress is considering. I mostly support proposals by Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain. Here’s why:

· Guest Workers. I support a visa program for low-skilled workers that also allows them to pursue a path to citizenship. It is unrealistic to expect someone to come here for three years, contribute to our economy, build a life here, and then return home for a year before reapplying, as one proposal suggests. And these are not jobs that are being taken away from American workers: employers must first recruit US workers prior to hiring guest workers. What do the employers get out of it? A stable, legal workforce.

· Legalization. This addresses what happens to the estimated 11.5 to 12 million undocumented immigrants already living here. Under the Kennedy-McCain bill, undocumented immigrants can qualify for permanent status if they clear criminal and national security background checks, a medical exam, demonstrate some English proficiency and pay a $2,000 fine. They must go to the “back of line” behind all applicants waiting for green cards.
To those who oppose this, I ask: What’s the alternative? It’s not logistically possible to deport 12 million people. And by encouraging undocumented immigrants to come out of the shadows and identify themselves to the government, we create a safer nation and discourage the underground economy.
Yes, they broke the law by crossing the border, but these are the people who keep our economy running. And maybe the fact that they’ve broken the rules actually means the system itself is broken. After all, rules aren’t always right, or moral; consider that segregation was once legal. When people put their lives at risk to come to the United States and make a living, it’s because they have no other options. People don’t leave their loved ones and communities because they want to. They leave because they can’t support their families.

· No criminalization. Proposals to make illegal immigration a felony, rather than a civil immigration offense, as well as making it a felony to offer assistance to undocumented immigrants, are just plain mean-spirited. It is inappropriate to group people who lack the proper documentation with felons, a group whose ranks include murderers, rapists, kidnappers and robbers.
There are moral dimensions to this, too: the LA Times reported that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the archbishop of Los Angeles, recently called on Roman Catholics in Southern California to observe a special day of fasting and prayer in solidarity with undocumented immigrants and asked them to pray for lawmakers as they debated immigration policy in Washington. Mahony also attacked the proposal to make it a crime to aid illegal immigrants, and pledged a campaign of civil disobedience if it became law.

· Border Enforcement. Militarizing the border by adding 12,000 more agents and building a bigger, stronger fence, as the Senate Judiciary Committee bill proposes, is just a Band-Aid. Why not take the billions we’ll spend and apply them to helping the economies of the sending countries become more self-sufficient, thus removing the reason many undocumented immigrants come in the first place? The Kennedy-McCain bill encourages the U.S. government to partner with Mexico to promote economic opportunity back home and reduce the pressure to immigrate to the United States.

· The DREAM Act. This aptly named proposal is part of the Judiciary Committee bill. It would allow undocumented immigrant children to become American citizens if they can prove good moral character and have graduated from high school, and if they then go to college or join the military. These are youth who were brought to the United States, many of them as infants, by their parents. Without documentation, they cannot attend college or legally hold a job. And yet many of these talented, hard working kids know no other home than America, and stand ready to contribute to our nation’s economy, bolstering our nation’s aging workforce.

Want to know more?

Check out a recent statement by Senator John Cornyn on the issue here, and find more information about his bill here. More information about the Cornyn-Kyl bill is here. A section-by-section analysis of Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s proposal can be found here. The American Immigration Lawyers Association’s section-by-section summary of the Senate Judiciary committee proposal can be found here. And, from two different sides of the ideological spectrum, check out the National Council of La Raza’s Q&A; on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s proposal here and the Federation for American Immigration Reform’s side-by-side comparison of immigration reform proposals here.

NEXT: Separating the rhetoric from the reality. We look at who the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants are, and what their experiences are like once they come to the United States.

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