This editorial appeared in The (Raleigh) News & Observer.
If illegal immigration isn't the most divisive issue of our time, it's certainly in the top two or three. Now, aides to President Obama say he intends to confront the subject later this spring, by beginning talks with congressional leaders and speaking publicly in May. It is a daunting chore, with the president already looking into the jaws of economic crisis, unfinished wars, health care reform and a need to start the country moving toward long-term energy solutions.
But Obama's ambitious agenda represents striking while the iron is hot, while the public is showing support for a president with initiative.
Perhaps there's room to hope that the president who successfully faced a polarizing issue involving his former minister during the 2008 campaign can bring about a calmer, more constructive debate over how to straighten out the country's counterproductive tangle of immigration laws – clearing a broader path to citizenship while making enforcement both more effective and more fair.
Illegal immigrants are a crucial workforce for American agriculture, if one that is vulnerable to exploitation, and a significant factor in the rest of the economy. They may pose competition for jobs in some sectors and be willing to work for less. But get-tough measures as extreme as advocating deportation of an estimated 12 million of them are unrealistic.
The assimilation problems that some illegal immigrants have are better cured than ignored. Most are hard-working people performing valuable tasks. And American businesses that hire them have been doing so for decades amid haphazard enforcement of hiring laws. President Bush incurred the wrath of many members of his own Republican Party in supporting a more moderate line on helping illegal residents move toward citizenship, or at least legal status. But that was the right course.
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