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Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Illegal

The United States Senate passed a moral test of historic magnitude this week when it approved a procedural measure that revives the much debated, much delayed overhaul of America’s immigration laws.

The immigration reform bill itself is not something commonly spoken of in high moral terms. The product of months of horse-trading by Democrats and Republicans and their attendant interest groups, it is a 300-page tangle of regulations and technicalities that only a lawyer could love. Almost every word represents a compromise between opposing ideologies, interests and worldviews. Almost every one of the bill’s supporters finds something in it to hate.

And yet the bill has managed, in these most divisive of times, to unite a coalition ranging from President Bush to Senator Ted Kennedy, from big business to progressive trade unions and human rights groups. Kennedy calls the measure “critical” to our “national security.” Senator John McCain says the fate of the bill will define “what kind of nation we are.” The president calls it “an historic opportunity” — and one that must not be lost. We agree with the president.

The reason for the high drama is alarmingly simple. There are currently some 12 million people living in America illegally, and their number increases every day. Twelve million people who sneaked across our borders or overstayed their visas, seeking America’s unique opportunities of freedom and an honest living, and who now live in daily fear of exposure and expulsion. Twelve million people who live with us and among us, who make our beds, harvest our fruit and diaper our children and yet fear to show their faces, who lack the most basic rights that the rest of us take for granted, who quake every time they must visit a doctor or register their own children for school.

If they remain as they are, among us but not part of us, Kennedy warns, they may someday form an angry, unassimilable mass of the sort that troubles European society. But we need not wait until tomorrow to be alarmed. Right now, their presence in the shadows is an affront to our democracy. We cannot be free if some of us are not free, and right now, 12 million of us are not free. It is a betrayal of America’s most basic promise.

Much of the opposition to the bill has come from nativist and law-and-order elements on the right, who object to the very notion of forgiving those who broke our laws by entering the country illegally. Instead, they propose to leave the undocumented in their current limbo and work toward mass deportation. Most Americans find the idea repugnant; as McCain said this week, “We don’t have 12 million pairs of handcuffs.”

But while most of us agree on the need for a humane immigration policy, keeping our doors open and continuing to offer hope to new Americans, the details of that policy are proving devilishly hard to pin down. Business interests want a steady, reliable supply of cheap labor, which means an admissions system that matches immigrants’ professional skills to America’s economic needs. The bill now before the Senate, sensitive to business needs, puts work skills up front and, in the process, eliminates family reunification as a visa category.

Religious and human rights groups rightly object that an immigration process without family reunification is cruel. They also worry that the bill’s creation of a “guest worker” program, annually granting some quarter-million two-year visas, will result in the emergence of a whole new population of undocumented workers who will hide in the shadows rather than return home. We share those concerns, and we hope that they’ll be addressed as the bill moves through Congress in the days ahead. We’re worried, too, that the Jewish community has been virtually invisible in this debate, declining to make itself heard on an issue that is central to American Jewish identity and to biblical values of care for the stranger. An American coalition for justice and human rights that lacks a strong Jewish voice at its center is a coalition gravely weakened. We can do better.

At this juncture, however, what’s important is that the Senate and House pass the bill. America needs a new immigration policy for the 21st century, and 12 million of our neighbors need hope for the future. The reform must not fail.

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