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Back to the Immigration Debate

The timing of President Bush's proposed immigration reform arouses suspicion. Put forth in an election year in which he is determined to win more Latino votes, advanced the week before he is to meet with his Mexican counterpart, and directed by White House political adviser Karl Rove, the effort challenges the definition of sincerity.

However, the mere fact that one of the nation's most serious and difficult problems has returned to the national debate should be welcomed.

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The president's proposals are short on detail, and need to be more closely examined from a security point of view. But their intent, at least, merits serious consideration. By proposing renewable temporary work visas to aliens currently working illegally the White House recognizes the nation must deal with massive flouting of immigration laws.

It also appears to be taking a holistic approach by proposing "guest worker" visas for the future. Under the plan, foreigners would have to prove they have a job waiting for them, and the US employer must show no American wants the job. Then the worker can enter the US under a temporary work visa, coming and going at will.

Conceptually, these reforms help address safety and exploitation issues facing illegal workers here and on the way. They also provide business with a source of low-wage labor that, employers claim, is in short supply.

The proposals also could help solve a demographic problem. By 2010, 9 million more jobs than people to fill them are expected as baby boomers retire.

Some serious questions need to be addressed. Foremost is how to prevent another huge influx of illegal aliens. Almost two decades ago, the Reagan administration gave amnesty to illegal aliens, yet their numbers have since jumped two to three times. Obviously, the amnesty, as well as sanctions on employers who hire illegals, did not work.

The Bush administration claims that unlike the Reagan reform, its plan is not an amnesty because it doesn't offer blanket citizenship. Indeed, the US should not reward lawbreakers with citizenship nor snub patient foreigners who pursue legal entry.

Persuading impoverished Mexicans not to risk their lives by crossing the border should remain the ultimate goal. Any form of amnesty sends the wrong signal that taking such risk is worth it. Uplifting Mexico's economy and regulating the flow of guest workers into the US are better alternatives.

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In the past, guest-worker plans often led to problems, such as employer abuse of workers. And how can businesses actually prove that the jobs they give to these guest workers are not jobs that Americans would take? Let us see a serious debate, and not just politicking.