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Answers on immigrants

TODAY THE Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to hash out the best way to reform immigration law. It is badly needed but politically messy work, a matter of creating a rational, legal environment for an estimated 11 million immigrants who are here illegally but help fuel the economy.

The committee will consider two bills, one from Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain, and one from Jon Kyl and John Cornyn. McCain and Kyl are both from Arizona and Cornyn is from Texas, border states where managing immigration is a large, costly effort. And all four senators wisely see the need to work with other countries.

In June, speaking at the first US-Mexican bishops conference on migration, Cornyn said: ''We must find a way to protect our border security and uphold the rule of law, while at the same time bringing immigrants who are truly here to work and provide for their families out of the shadows and into the law."

But the Kyl-Cornyn bill focuses too heavily on law enforcement, punishment, and creating legal hurdles for immigrants. It would create a temporary worker program designed to give immigrants a legal way to hold jobs in the United States, with a new visa category that lets people work for two years. They could renew the visa, but only after they had spent a year living continuously in their home countries. Such a schedule could create a troubling boom/bust cycle for immigrants and deprive employers of seasoned employees. And the bill makes no mention of labor law protection for workers.

Immigrants would also be asked to deport themselves by applying for ''mandatory departure status." They would leave the United States and pursue reentry through legal channels. It's a convoluted option that could encourage people to stay hidden.

It's ''an unrealistic and unworkable immigration reform plan," says Ali Noorani, head of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.

A tough approach might sell in Congress as a means to increase safety. But it would not address the problem, since immigration and national security are largely separate issues. Immigrants typically come here to earn money, not attack the country.

The Kennedy-McCain bill offers a better blend of security and opportunity. It also sets up a temporary worker program but allows for visa renewals without requiring people to leave the country. Money would be invested in giving immigrants English classes. And the bill would create the possibility, though not the guarantee, of citizenship. Congress should act quickly. These proposals offer a fair deal for immigrants and common-sense protections for the country.

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