By Joe Tash
Comprehensive immigration reform may once again come up for debate in Congress by early next year, but a polarizing debate over the measure could make it difficult, if not impossible, to pass the legislation.
Even the meaning of the term "immigration reform" can be tricky to pin down. On one side are those who want tougher border-enforcement measures to prevent illegal immigrants from working in the United States and deportation of immigration violators.
On the other side are those who argue for a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, protection of workers' rights and access to education.
Finding a middle ground on the issue may prove difficult, although Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, announced in October that he intends to sponsor a comprehensive immigration reform bill in the House. A spokeswoman for Gutierrez said the bill is likely to be introduced by the end of this month.
Rep. Brian Bilbray, a Republican who represents California's 50th District, including Rancho Santa Fe, Carmel Valley, Solana Beach, Del Mar and La Jolla, said the bill proposed by Gutierrez begins with amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the United States, which Bilbray believes is the wrong approach.
Instead, Bilbray said, immigration reform efforts should focus on making it harder for illegal immigrants to get jobs in the U.S. To do that, he proposes the requirement of electronic verification that job applicants are legally authorized to work in the U.S., called "E-Verify," and establishment of a national identification card and tamper-proof Social Security card.
Such measures would allow employers to comply with hiring laws while protecting them from inadvertent hiring of illegal immigrants, Bilbray said.
"If an employer does due diligence and makes the effort, he's held harmless," said Bilbray, a former mayor of Imperial Beach and member of the County Board of Supervisors, who chairs the House GOP Immigration Reform Caucus.
The first priority, said Bilbray, should be to secure the border and take away the economic incentive for people to enter the country illegally, in a word, jobs.
"Until then, with amnesty, we will only create a new tidal wave" of illegal immigration, Bilbray said.
But others argue that the contributions of immigrants have been critical to the American success story, and that providing immigrants access to education and other protections can only strengthen the U.S. economy.
Rita Cepeda, who immigrated with her family to the United States in the 1960s from Nicaragua and now serves as president of San Diego Mesa College, wants to see comprehensive immigration reform, but has doubts that it will come to pass.
Stressing that she was not speaking in her official capacity, Cepeda said she strongly supports federal legislation that would make it easier for illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children, and have graduated from high school in this country, to attend college. She said the pending U.S. Senate bill, called the DREAM Act, is similar to a California law passed in 2001 that allows such students to pay in-state rates for college, rather than the far higher rates charged to international students.
Studies show that over the next 10 years, California will be short 1 million skilled workers, a gap that could be filled by immigrants if they could obtain a college education, said Cepeda.
While some may believe illegal immigrants take jobs from American citizens, the facts collected in various studies say otherwise, Cepeda said. "In all of it, there isn't one (study) that supports the notion that immigrants take jobs away from individuals who want that position. They're mostly working jobs nobody wants."
Bilbray conceded that immigrant labor may be needed in certain geographic areas and categories of jobs. But rather than allowing illegal immigrants to remain legally in the U.S., he said, a guest worker program should be established, under which workers come to the U.S. temporarily, then return home.
"I do not believe we should be giving any (legal) status based on the fact that they're illegally in the United States," he said.
Cepeda, though, said she feels for those who suffer from dehydration, exposure and even death from trying to enter the United States over harsh border terrain.
"For someone to want to come to this country that badly, that's what gives me a little perspective. A chance to be American, that's it. If there was a process that made it possible to do it the right way, folks would jump at it," she said.
"It's not an alien from another planet, it's human beings like you and I," Cepeda said.
Rep. Brian Bilbray will run again for the 50th District seat in Congress in the 2010 race on a platform centered on creating jobs for U.S. citizens and dealing with environmental challenges.