Column: A problem without a solution
SAN DIEGO -- Do you remember when some liberal Democrats -- in opposing heavy-handed attempts by Republicans to regulate immigration policy in Arizona and elsewhere -- used to whoop and holler about how states should not exceed their authority and usurp the power of the federal government?
That argument is so 10 minutes ago.
Now, in California, some Democrats are even taking a page out of the Republicans' playbook. They're trying to do what the federal government won't do: create a guest worker program for agriculture and the service industries and go so far as to give undocumented workers the equivalent of legal residency.
Hold on. I wasn't aware that legal residency was a state's to give. This isn't a driver's license or fishing permit. Residency is a way to prevent people from being deported and having their lives turned upside down.
States having this kind of power will probably come as news to the Department of Homeland Security, which -- under the Obama administration -- has deported record numbers of immigrants who lacked legal residency and will probably deport many more regardless of what state governments do or don't.
It seems that there are those on the left who -- while they mean well and want to achieve reasonable and humane immigration reform -- are just as much in need of refresher courses in government and civics as some on the right.
For me, the frustrating part is that I agree with the objectives that the reformers are trying to accomplish. We need some kind of guest worker program to import foreign labor, and this need will only increase in the next few decades as countries like Mexico create more job opportunities for their own citizens. While guest worker programs are almost always problematic and often lead to exploitation, they are necessary to fill the sort of jobs that Americans won't take --such as in agriculture.
California Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez knows those jobs well. He represents one of the poorest districts in the state, one that presses up against the U.S.-Mexico border. Perez recently authored a guest worker bill as part of a three-bill package that also enhances border enforcement and makes it easier for immigrants to come to the United States legally.
For him and his allies in the Legislature, it's all about accepting reality and admitting the degree to which the California economy has become dependent on illegal immigrant workers. It's also about not wasting any more time expecting lawmakers in Washington to tackle an issue that terrifies them.
"I don't think we can wait any longer," Perez told me recently. "I think we have to force the conversation."
The guest worker bill -- dubbed the Agricultural Jobs and Industry Stabilization Act -- would create a program to bring in foreign laborers to fill jobs. If passed, California would seek permission of the federal government to allow undocumented workers in agriculture and service sectors -- along with their immediate family members -- to remain in the United States as long as they pay fines for being here illegally, learn English, undergo background checks and pay taxes. The fines would go to fund the program.
This is not a bad idea. It's simple and practical, and yet likely to have a big impact on the state economy. It is steeped in common sense, and puts solutions ahead of ideology. And it has the potential to improve people's lives in a real and meaningful way instead of just giving politicians more to argue about.
In other words, it doesn't stand a chance. Call me cynical. But I think this bill will never make it through the California Legislature. And as I told Perez, the fiercest opponents are likely to come from within his own party. In the Golden State, Democrats control both chambers of the Legislature, the governor's office, and most statewide offices. If they want a bill to become law, it will. If they don't, it won't. And when proposals are shot down, there's no sense in blaming the Republicans who languish in the minority.
Here's the key. Guest worker programs are inevitably opposed by labor unions, which are heavily allied with the Democratic Party and which peddle the fairy tale that U.S. workers will do the jobs that now go to foreign laborers.
When it comes to immigration reform, Democrats need to understand they can't fix the problem because they are the problem. After all, better to save lives than play with them.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.