The irony of immigration reform

I dropped by a friend’s house the other day to do some sidewalk overseeing of the removal of two 70-foot oak trees, no small task. The company he had hired wasn’t one of those operations where they knock on one’s door and offer to get rid of deadwood for a few hundred dollars. It was a major, cherry picker, shredder-equipped outfit with a four-man crew neatly dressed in white logo shirts and green pants. They were all licensed and bonded.

They were quite efficient at what they did, managing to take down both trees and haul away the wood in a few hours despite the fact the trees were positioned in heavy woods that precluded the use of the cherry picker and required some harrowing very high chainsaw work. All of them, of course, had something besides their uniforms in common. They were all Hispanics, who, with the exception of the foreman, had only enough English language to get by.

“What would we do without them,” my friend said. “When they’re finished, Jose and his men will be here to do mowing and leaf blowing and tomorrow, Virginia, his wife, is coming to clean house. They are the most industrious people I have ever seen.”

Obviously, what went unspoken here was how many of this efficient crew were in this country illegally.

There in lies the dilemma the nation faces in trying to solve its most pressing domestic problem, immigration. It is a quandary of such physical, economic and social magnitude as to defy any easy solution — 12 million illegal aliens straining institutions at the same time they are providing us with a critical labor force willing to perform the often mundane and difficult tasks that most legitimate Americans scorn.

I can just hear it now. Here we go again, one of those bleeding heart “give me your poor and your hungry” columns in defense of unfettered immigration. Not so. Uncontrolled borders in this time of terrorism and the wholesale trafficking of drugs and other contraband would be suicidal. What is desperately needed, however, is a Congress willing to deal with the situation — to find some sort of policy that produces an orderly flow of temporary and permanent workers that also safeguards our borders from those who are clearly undesirable while at the same time recognizing the contributions of those who have proven their worthiness to stay here over years of good and productive behavior despite their illegality.

The reluctance of lawmakers to even address the matter in a dispassionate, bipartisan way has made the problem progressively worse and one that truly threatens national security. What good is a national legislature that for personal political reasons can’t deal with the most crucial domestic issues? Is it any wonder the approval rating for Congress is lower than for any other government institution?

While President Bush’s critics multiply daily because of his post 9/11 foreign policy, his efforts, unsuccessful though they have been, to get some sort of meaningful immigration reform have been a major bright spot on his record despite the fact they continue to be met by the most frustrating obstinacy from both Republicans and Democrats. It is a struggle between those who would say come one, come all and those who would build walls and dig moats, using, one supposes, the labor of those they want to keep out. The consequence of this rancor is that it is highly unlikely any reform will take place before next year’s presidential election.

In the meantime the ranks of illegal aliens will swell — predictions are there will be 13 million by the end of next year — and families will continue to be ripped apart. A recent news item told of a Colombian couple being deported after 15 years of seeking political asylum in the often- impenetrable government bureaucracy. They leave behind a thriving catering business and two sons who are doing quite well in college and have been granted a special reprieve by Congress until they finish. The future of their parents is iffy because of his past political alliances in Colombia.

As I watched the skill and daring with which the crew took down the huge trees at my friend’s house dropping huge limbs without damaging power lines or structures, I couldn’t help but think just how much a steady flow of immigrants has contributed to the wealth and welfare of Americans and must continue to do so. There has to be a way.

(E-mail Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at thomassondan(at)