IN HEARINGS that will help shape the nation's workforce, the Senate Judiciary Committee will today start to define ''guest workers," hashing through various bills that try to modernize immigration law.
Some senators envision the country as a giant gated community where immigrants work for a few years and then leave.
A more realistic vision is of workers who come to the United States and have a chance to become citizens, creating an incentive to obey reformed immigration laws.
The bottom line: America needs workers.
Last month, the American Hotel and Lodging Association and the National Restaurant Association sent a letter to Congress that said in part: ''based on our projected growth rates, our industries will require much more labor than that which will be available among those born domestically. Coupled with an aging domestic workforce, the current labor shortage will clearly become much more acute unless additional labor is found."
Of course some of that supply now exists: a shadow force of workers drawn from a pool of 11 million people who are here illegally.
Many try to live below the nation's legal radar and face low wages and abusive work situations. Companies hire them assuming false documentation is real, or not caring. The result is a corrosive labor underground.
Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Specter, the Judiciary Committee chairman, has filed a bill that would set up a temporary worker program, but with tough eligibility restrictions that would limit its effect. The bill would ''create a permanent underclass of temporary immigrant workers with no opportunity to get in line for citizenship," according to Ali Noorani, head of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. Specter also calls for investing in technology to build a virtual fence around the country -- an idea likely to be impractical and ineffective.
Other bills in the Senate and House overemphasize security, calling for more high-tech gadgets and law enforcement personnel. National safety is a basic priority. But most immigrants come here to earn money, not to commit acts of terrorism. Reform has to focus on building a fairer, more rational economic relationship between this country and its newest immigrants.
A sound mix of security and reform is at the heart of a Senate bill filed by Edward Kennedy and Arizona Republican John McCain. It would increase safety, offer immigrants a chance to become citizens, and invest resources abroad so that people can find work for living wages in their own countries.
The political arguments are heated, but the goal is clear: Craft humane legislation that advances the economy by helping employers and employees both.