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Stars align at last for immigration plan

By Bill Richardson, Special to CNN
January 29, 2013 -- Updated 1526 GMT (2326 HKT)
Applicants in Los Angeles line up in August to file for the Obama administration's reprieve from deportation.
Applicants in Los Angeles line up in August to file for the Obama administration's reprieve from deportation.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Until now, fear-mongering drove immigration policy and overhaul was ignored
  • Richardson: With illegal immigration down, GOP realizes it needs to address Hispanics
  • He says we need path to citizenship, border security, guest worker plan, DREAM Act
  • Richardson: The onus is on Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration plan

Editor's note: Bill Richardson was governor of New Mexico for two terms and represented the state's 3rd Congressional District for 15 years. He is chairman of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials' executive advisory service Global Political Strategies and special envoy for the Organization of American States. The former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations also is senior fellow for Latin America at Rice University.
Read this article in Spanish

(CNN) -- The stars may finally be aligning for a comprehensive immigration overhaul. Whatever the reasons -- and there are many -- it's about time.

During my two terms as governor of a border state, there were times when I was hopeful for a breakthrough. But political fear-mongering often ruled the day as immigrants and drugs illegally crossed into the United States and weapons flowed to the south. With every border flare-up, the American public -- and their elected leaders -- put immigration on the back burner.

I am encouraged by the news that a bipartisan group of senators has crafted a plan and is working on building consensus toward a political way forward. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus is also taking an active role and showing leadership on this issue. My hope is that we end up with a truly comprehensive solution that does not tear families apart.

Opinion: Worker visas are the key to immigration reform

Bill Richardson
Bill Richardson

A comprehensive plan should create a path to earned citizenship, enforceable border security, a realistic guest worker plan, accountability for employers that hire illegal immigrants and passage of the DREAM Act.

We have a window of opportunity now that didn't exist before because immigration is at a low point, and addressing the issue makes more sense politically.

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Our struggle to recover from the financial crisis doesn't just mean fewer jobs for Americans; the lack of work has also deterred many would-be immigrants, especially those who come to America to find construction and manufacturing jobs.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that we have nearly 1 million fewer illegal immigrants living in America than we did in 2007. Census officials say the economy is the primary reason for the decline. The aging population and the growing middle class in Mexico may also be factors that explain the new trend.

While nobody is celebrating the poor economy and the lack of jobs, the reality that illegal immigration isn't seen as a "crisis" at the moment, gives us the opportunity to have a reasoned debate, without the unnecessary rhetoric, and finally enact a comprehensive immigration plan.

Read: Senate immigration plan

With a stable and reasonable immigration system in place, I believe we'll have more opportunities for bilateral economic growth and trade between the United States and Mexico. That will mean more jobs on both sides of the border.

Sweeping immigration changes proposed
Will lawmakers tackle immigration?

Politically, the results of the recent election strongly suggest this is the moment for reform.

First, President Barack Obama is following through on his promise to make an immigration overhaul a priority, using the good will he earned with the Hispanic constituencies, and will announce his proposals Tuesday.

Second, many Republicans in Congress realize that they need a new political strategy if they have any hope of bouncing back from the devastating losses they are experiencing with Hispanic voters.

iReport: Under deportation, above fear

Hispanics of all ethnic backgrounds are embracing Democratic candidates and their message of inclusiveness and opportunity for all. Opposition to immigration overhaul, including the demonization of foreign-born families that look to America for opportunity, is hurting Republicans at the polls.

Third, the Supreme Court ruled emphatically that immigration is the responsibility of the federal government, not the states. While I am certainly sympathetic as a former governor with the issues that states must deal with as a result of illegal immigration, the onus is on Congress to pass an immigration plan.

Unless we come to grips with all aspects of the immigration issue, we are going to end up with the same impractical, expensive and ineffective solutions we have had for years.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Bill Richardson.

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