Also published in the Sacramento Bee.
Immigration is a subject of unwavering conviction and emotional debate.
Mention the issue in polite company, and the exchange might not remain polite for long. The subject will almost certainly morph into a critique of taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal immigrants, criminal aliens taking up space in our jails and prisons, or jobs lost to paid-under-the-table employees. The emphasis remains on the word "illegal," and no one disputes the overarching intent of ensuring that our public policies protect our state's and nation's interests, and reducing incentives to come to this country illegally.
As long as our borders are penetrable, however, the simple incentives of available work for reasonable pay and the possibility of an improved quality of life make the risks associated with immigration – even illegally – irresistible for many. From all indications, the overwhelming majority of people who cross our borders without permission or paperwork do so with honorable intentions. Their desire is to find a new and better life for themselves and their families, and pay their dues along the way.
At the same time, it must be acknowledged that many employers struggle to fill jobs that are physically demanding or simply unappealing in the mainstream marketplace. When farmers are short on labor to harvest crops and immigrant workers show up ready to work, it makes little sense to allow a year's worth of toil to rot in California's vineyards, orchards and fields because those eager and willing lack the proper documentation. Their hard work is appreciated, yet we often refuse to recognize their presence or the significance of their contributions. Many farmers acknowledge that laborers will be hard to find at harvest time should the heavy hand of government clamp down.
Some assert that we should just tell those who came here illegally to go back to where they came from and let the chips fall where they may. But it would be logistically impossible to remove them, and the economic impact would be greater than most can imagine.
At the end of the day, immigration laws fall under federal jurisdiction, and on this score federally imposed solutions have largely failed. While we wait for our federal representatives to find the will to better protect and police our borders and streamline the immigration process, a possible solution lies in the re-establishment of a guest worker program. Doing so would enable states to identify those who are here and allow immigrants to work toward citizenship and be recognized as contributing members of our culture and our economy while filling vital gaps in our job market.
Rather than ignoring their presence, documenting these workers would ensure that both employers and employees are protected by our laws and regulations rather than being compelled to violate them out of desperate necessity. We must recognize both our economic need and reality and look for common-sense solutions to bridge the gap.
Recognizing the need for practical assimilation, I supported two bills during the 2011-12 legislative session to allow undocumented college-age students brought here as minors to move into the mainstream while they move toward citizenship. I supported legislation allowing these students to apply for scholarships at our state colleges and universities once resident student-aid needs are met.
In conjunction with President Barack Obama's work permit program, I also supported a new law to allow certain undocumented immigrants between the ages of 16 and 31 to obtain driver's licenses. To be eligible, the students must either currently be in school, have graduated from high school or have been honorably discharged from the military. They must be able to document their presence in the country before the age of 16, be under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012, and they must not have been convicted of a felony, a significant misdemeanor or three or more misdemeanors, among other requirements.
On Monday, the state Senate passed Senate Joint Resolution 8, which I co-authored. The resolution expresses support for federal action on immigration. I am encouraged by the immigration reform proposal that the U.S. Senate's "gang of eight" plans to unveil, and I hope we finally see action from Congress. As California has the largest share of immigrants of any state, it is important that we, as elected officials, express the need for Congress to take action to fix this broken system.
Efforts such as these may not represent a complete or perfect solution to the issue of illegal immigration, but they do begin the work of reasonable compromise.