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Posted on Mon, Oct. 20, 2003

A chance for immigration reform
OUR OPINION: CONGRESS, BUSH SHOULD SEIZE MOMENT FOR REFORM, DIALOGUE
The United States needs a more-rational immigration policy. Our economy, security and sense

of humanity depend on it. While such an enormous challenge won't be resolved overnight,

Congress and President Bush each have the chance to move in the right direction, and both should do so.

Congress needs to approve the Agricultural Job Opportunity Benefits and Security Act,

which promises to benefit growers as well as farmworkers. President Bush would do the nation

a great service by reengaging in a once-promising immigration dialogue when he meets

Mexican President Vicente Fox today. That dialogue was on track to improve our national security,

bring undocumented workers out of the shadows and assure a legal labor supply for many industries

-- until 9/11 derailed the high-level talks.

A legal labor pool

The bipartisan agricultural bill pending in Congress shows how legalizing undocumented workers

is good for people, business and America. Among other requirements, workers would have to work

at least 75 days a year in agriculture for at least three years to be eligible for residency;

so farmers will be assured of a legal labor pool.

Meanwhile, with legal status, farmworkers would be less vulnerable to exploitation like that documented

in The Herald's recent series, Fields of Despair, which told the story of slave-like working conditions,

indecent housing and criminal abuse by agriculture crew bosses. Farmworkers wouldn't have to fear

law enforcement, either -- resulting in improved cooperation with the authorities and overall security.

What we have now is a shortage of legal farmworkers -- not of farmworkers. Thus,

growers who do the right thing -- insist on legal workers, pay at least minimum wage

and provide decent conditions -- are undercut by the unscrupulous ones who,

directly or through third-party contractors, exploit undocumented workers.

Congress could change all that by legalizing some 500,000 farmworkers, including 100,000 in Florida.

Similarly, immigration negotiations with Mexico promise to benefit everyone

except those who profit from illegal trafficking and human suffering.

Safe flow of people

Together, both countries could crack down on the smuggling of people, drugs and other illicit goods.

This would better ensure an orderly and safe flow of people across the border.

The United States would help create jobs in Mexico, so that Mexicans wouldn't be tempted

to cross the border illegally to feed their families. These measures hold promise of better economics,

national security and human conditions for both nations.

Today Presidents Bush and Fox will meet on the sidelines of a trade conference in Bangkok,

and the opportunity is ripe for renewing their friendship. We know that Mr. Bush would have wanted

more support from Mr. Fox for the U.S. war in Iraq, and Mr. Fox had serious domestic politics to consider.

But the upside of restarting immigration talks at this juncture is just too great to dismiss.