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Compassionate, prudent immigration reform needed

Ours is an immigrant nation and a nation that supports the downtrodden. It is also a nation of laws. There is no simple balance to these characteristics, no magic formula that will spit out the right answers.

In the course of The Daily's seven-part series on immigration, we have learned much. Most importantly we have learned — and hopefully communicated — the complexity of an issue that is at the forefront of North Alabama concerns.

First, our research has reminded us that immigrants, be they documented or undocumented, are human beings. Alabama's culture of compassion cannot exclude fellow humans based upon whether their wallet contains a Green Card. Most illegal immigrants have a story to tell, and often it is a frightening one. They have been through much and, rightly or wrongly, look to America as their salvation. Many have families, either here or in Mexico, and support those families through great sacrifice.

Many also are hard workers. Area employers consistently compliment them on their work ethic. The importance of family and the importance of hard work are values shared by Alabamians, and we are wrong to blind ourselves to those positive characteristics.

Another lesson is that economic dependency goes both ways. Hispanic immigrants depend on U.S. employers, but our employers also depend on them. Some economists believe that Alabama's recent economic coups have much to do with the availability of cheap labor, the supply of which comes to a significant extent from immigrants. Lose the immigrants, some say, and you lose the employers.

Undocumented immigrants, however, are breaking the law. Amnesty, practiced by President Reagan and cautiously touted by President Bush, is not the answer. We have laws; we must enforce them. If laws restricting immigrants are flawed then we need to change them, not ignore them.

Building walls is not the answer. For one, it's futile; as long as U.S. employers are hiring, walls will be breached. Walls are also hypocritical. They are a symbol of Hispanic exclusion when U.S. industry demands Hispanic inclusion.

Most illegal immigrants enter our border because that is their only realistic chance of getting here. The line of prospective immigrants seeking to enter legally is too long, the process too cumbersome. That hurts Hispanics. It also hurts the U.S. economy.

The answer is thoughtful immigration reform. Prospective immigrants without criminal records should be welcomed to the extent U.S. employers need their labor. Artificial immigration limits need to be scrapped in favor of limits dictated by labor demand. Complex immigration requirements need to succumb to an expedited process that lets immigrants in, but also lets them out.

Many immigrants stay in this country beyond their visa not because they want to stay here, but because they are afraid they won't be able to return when family finances require it and U.S. labor demand encourages it.

President John F. Kennedy, descended from Irish immigrants, said, "Everywhere immigrants have enriched and strengthened the fabric of American life."

Our many interviews with North Alabama immigrants confirm this fact. They also confirm that non-English-speaking immigrants are a significant drain on our school systems and public services.

The time has come for compassionate but economically prudent immigration reform.

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