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Commentary: Immigration, the sequel has returned

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SAN DIEGO -- The immigration debate is back. And it's hard to find anyone who is pleased to see it return.

Not Democrats, who see the immigration issue as one that divides their party, with labor on one side and Latinos on the other. Not Republicans, whose usual demand for a guest worker program won't go over too well with a national unemployment rate of 9.7 percent.

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Yet the debate must go on. This isn't just one of the toughest issues. It's also one of the most pressing. What else do you call it when tens of thousands of people feel they have to march on Washington to demand that President Obama keep his campaign promise to work toward comprehensive immigration reform? The activists are fed up with foot-dragging by the administration. Immigration-reform advocates -- many of whom supported Obama -- decided to push back.

Just the idea of an anti-Obama protest from the left was enough to embarrass the White House. Days before the event, Obama announced his support for a comprehensive immigration reform bill scheduled to be unveiled by Sens. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. It's a good bet that the legislation will try to accomplish the seven goals that Schumer spelled out in a speech last summer -- curtailing illegal immigration, controlling the borders, creating a biometric employee verification system, requiring illegal immigrants already here to become legalized, keeping family reunification a priority, encouraging high-skilled immigrants to come to the United States while discouraging temporary guest workers, and making it easier for people to come here legally.

The key is the employee verification system. According to media reports, it would consist of a national biometric identification card for all U.S. workers designed to tell employers who is eligible to work and who isn't. With such a system in place, the government could more easily sanction employers who break the rules -- and attack the problem at the root.

In fact, an ID card is so important that when I asked former Sen. Alan Simpson, the father of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, why that legislation wasn't as successful as it could have been, he said it was for lack of a "secure identifier."

Congress can fix what is broken if members stand up to those elements in both parties that are willing to scuttle immigration reform because there's one part of the package they find unacceptable. For those Republicans who cater to nativists, the deal-breaker is any legislative language that gives illegal immigrants a pathway to earned legalization, which cultural conservatives mischaracterize as amnesty. For those Democrats who cater to organized labor, the unthinkable is guest workers, which labor-friendly liberals misrepresent as a threat to U.S. workers.

Interestingly, the majority of Americans are not direct stakeholders in the immigration debate. The closest they come is when they think back to their own immigrant parents or grandparents and sympathize with the foreigners of today who are getting much the same rude reception that earlier arrivals did. But most people don't feel as if their lives will be impacted one way or another if illegal immigrants get a chance to earn the right to remain in the United States as part of a reform package that also helps secure the border and streamlines the process for people to come legally.

They just see a system that needs fixing, and they're perplexed as to why their leaders can't seem to do anything about it.

Immigration doesn't have to be the latest item on a list of issues deemed too tough for Congress to even talk about, let alone solve. By summoning creativity and courage, lawmakers can repair a system that is out of order. And America will be better for it.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is rnavarrette@wctrib.com.

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