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JOAN VENNOCHI

Fixing a broken system

THE LAW was enforced. For some, that alone justifies the outcome of the raid on a New Bedford company that knowingly hired illegal immigrants. The workers were rounded up and some were sent to Texas.

I say, current immigration law is an embarrassment to a country founded by immigrants. It is arbitrary, absurd, at times cruel and completely disconnected from the reality of immigrant labor in America. The law should be changed, but too many politicians in Washington lack the spine to change it.

Federal immigration authorities raided Michael Bianco Inc., a New Bedford manufacturer of luxury leather goods for companies like Coach Inc. The company also manufactures military backpacks, making it the beneficiary of an $82 million federal contract. Company owners were arrested, but allowed to go free until their next court date.

Meanwhile, 361 workers, most of them young and middle-aged Latino women, were detained. Some were flown to a Texas detention center, forced to leave behind children in Massachusetts. Some were returned to Massachusetts for humanitarian reasons.

Tell me again how that result makes this country safer and stronger? It doesn't, unless some link between these workers and terrorists comes to light.

Sending home 12 million illegal immigrants is impossible. The reality is that illegal immigrants provide cheap labor for a wide range of businesses. As for taking jobs from Americans, White House adviser Karl Rove recently put that fear in perspective: "I don't want my 17-year-old son to have to pick tomatoes or make beds in Las Vegas," he said.

Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona and Democratic Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts are expected to refile an immigration reform bill, perhaps this week. It will attempt to balance border surveillance and workplace enforcement with a plan to give millions of illegal immigrants a chance to work here legally. President Bush supports immigration reform, although he is hedging on whether people who come to the United States illegally should have a path to so-called amnesty.

McCain's stance is a flashpoint for conservatives, and a burden in his quest for the GOP presidential nomination. Republican Mitt Romney took a tough position against illegal immigrants as governor of Massachusetts -- although it turned out illegal immigrants were mowing his lawn. As a presidential hopeful, Romney continues to push border security. A Romney strategist told Politico.com, "Of primary importance to Republican voters is that we are at war and our borders are porous and it is petrifying. How do we not lock our borders at night?" McCain is sticking behind immigration reform, although he is careful to stress security along with a guest worker program. "The truth is that our nation's porous borders and failed immigration policies are a national disgrace . . . A comprehensive immigration control plan that works is long overdue," he wrote in an op-ed piece Tuesday in the New Hampshire Union Leader.

Democrats control Congress, but immigration reform still faces tough opposition. "The dynamic has changed, but it is still hard going," said Kennedy spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner. Last week, Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada promised to push immigration legislation, saying, "This debate is about security . . . but it is also about our humanity and our decency." However, Senator Dianne Feinstein of California suggested that senators "may have reached too far in the comprehensive bill" last year.

Retreat, particularly on the part of Democrats, represents nothing but bowing to the shrill voices of fear -- and also ignores a critical message from last November's results. Republicans tried but failed to make immigration the wedge issue that would ensure their continued control of Congress. Anti-immigration candidates lost Senate races, including Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Tom Kean Jr. of New Jersey. Several Democratic candidates for governor, including Deval Patrick, were attacked for supporting "illegal immigration," but still won.

"New Bedford is a symptom of a system that's broken. Instead of fixing it, we are enforcing a broken system," said Judy Golub, of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center in San Francisco. "Let's solve the problem. That was a lesson from this past election. People want solutions."

The status quo is not a solution.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is vennochi@globe.com.

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