Our View: Build bridges, not walls

The Senate Judiciary Committee's approval Monday of an immigration bill that includes a guest-worker provision is the kind of proposal our country needs to be debating.

The Senate's effort is an improvement over a House bill approved late last year that has been the catalyst for protest marches across the country. The difference between the two bills is that, though both would beef up enforcement along the border, the Senate's bill also deals with the economic factors that drive illegal immigration.

The legislation would:

- Create a guest-worker program that would let up to 400,000 low-wage immigrant workers remain in the country legally for up to six years.

- Allow 1.5 million immigrants to work in agriculture for up to five years.

- Create an avenue for illegal immigrants already in the country to apply for citizenship by paying a $2,000 fee and meeting other conditions.

- Protect nonprofits from prosecution for providing humanitarian assistance to illegal immigrants.

- Double the number of Border Patrol agents and increase security equipment in use along the border.

The bill still must win full Senate approval and then be reconciled with the House version. House members such as Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo have pronounced the Senate version dead on arrival. No doubt, the finished product is going to look different from what came out of Judiciary on Monday.

But at least the Senate is willing to acknowledge that solving the illegal immigration problem will require more than building a wall and adding Border Patrol agents.

Illegal immigrants come here for the opportunity to work, to earn wages that are five or 10 times more than they can in Mexico and other Central and South American countries. They come here because America's economy doesn't have enough low-wage labor to harvest its crops, build and clean its homes and prepare and serve its food. They come here to do jobs that native-born Americans won't do at the wages that are being offered.

We've said it before -- illegal immigration fills a work force void and fuels Americans' addiction to low-cost goods and services. America's economy depends on immigrant workers, and the Mexican economy depends on the money that illegal immigrants send home every week, every month and every year.

The Yampa Valley economy is a microcosm of this. The businesses that drive our resort -- construction, agriculture, lodging and restaurants -- desperately need low-wage workers. And as our resort economy has grown, so has our immigrant population.

Has the availability of illegal immigrant workers kept wages artificially low? Yes. Has the increasing number of illegal immigrants placed a strain on our social services? Yes. Have illegal immigrants taken jobs away from native-born Americans? Yes.

But a guest-worker program could help address such issues. The program would allow better monitoring of immigrants. It would allow immigrants to contribute more equitably to the social service, health care and education programs they use. And it would remove the financial incentive that drives the worst element in the illegal immigration issue -- human smugglers.

America must secure its southern border, but it also must come to grips with the important role immigrant labor plays in the economy. As the national debate about this issue heats up, it's encouraging to see that at least some of our lawmakers have their sights on meaningful immigration reform.

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