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Commentary: Immigration plan unites far right and far left

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Illegal immigration is dividing the country, but efforts to tackle the problem may just bring it together. Well, sort of.

Some of the more thoughtful proposals -- as opposed to those that fit neatly on cocktail napkins -- are uniting the far right and the far left in opposition.

That is exactly what happened recently when the news broke that the White House -- working with Senate Republicans -- was suggesting ideas of its own for how to reform the immigration system.

The White House plan provides for border enforcement, guest workers and a path to legalization for illegal immigrants already here -- provided they first return to their home country and apply to re-enter legally. This is what has become known as a "touchback," and the concept appears in a couple of pieces of Congressional legislation as well.

The administration also wants to tinker with the criteria for how we decide which immigrants are allowed to come legally. For the last 40 years, the emphasis has been on family reunification. Of the more than 1 million visas issued in 2005, 58 percent went to relatives of people who were already here.

The White House suggests that we redirect as many as 50,000 visas that take into account factors such as an immigrant's education, training, and language skills as well as the employment needs of the country.

Conservatives hate the fact that millions of illegal immigrants would be allowed to stay; liberals hate that, from now on, family reunification would no longer be the deciding factor as to who immigrates legally to the country. So, both sides immediately began slinging arrows at the White House.

But these ideas are worth debating. And we can't allow the folks at the extremes to short-circuit those discussions for the sake of their own interest.

I'll start. The touchback is a worthwhile idea, because it requires illegal immigrants do penance for breaking our laws while reinforcing the notion that the right to live in this country legally is valuable and must be earned.

It also may be worthwhile to revisit the emphasis we put on family reunification. For one thing, the numbers are small. The White House is talking about 50,000 visas, or less than 5 percent of the total number typically granted in a given year.

Having said that, the emphasis should go to employment needs and not to personal factors such as education, training or other skills. Getting into the United States should not be like getting into Harvard.

Anyone who says otherwise doesn't understand the first thing about this country or the enormous contributions that have been made over the generations by low-skilled immigrants from all over the world who didn't have so much as a high school diploma.

When it comes to fixing our broken immigration system, there is no perfect plan. But, as they say, we can't make the perfect the enemy of the good. And as ideas go, there is a lot of good out there. So let's stop looking for flaws and start looking for solutions -- before the problem gets worse.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of The San Diego Union-Tribune and a nationally syndicated columnist. You can read his column here.external link

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.

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Ruben Navarrette Jr.: The White House immigration plan is worth debating.

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