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Commentary: Mark date for immigration bill

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opinion Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

SAN DIEGO -- It's time to send Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York a slew of calendars.

Here's why. One of my favorite stories from the civil rights movement involves James L. Farmer Jr., the co-founder of the Congress of Racial Equality, President Kennedy, and thousands of ballpoint pens. As Farmer told the story, many in the civil rights community were frustrated in 1962 that Kennedy had not kept his campaign pledge to eliminate discrimination in federally assisted housing with "one stroke of the pen." Farmer later wrote, "We figured the president's pen must have run dry." So he helped organize the "Ink for Jack" campaign, which sent loads of pens to the White House. Before the year was out, Kennedy signed an executive order prohibiting discrimination in federally assisted housing.

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The moral: It's important to stand up to your enemies, but sometimes you also need to prod along your friends.

Schumer promised immigration activists that he would introduce a comprehensive reform bill by Labor Day. He must have lost track of time.

There's a good chance that the Schumer bill is written and languishing in his desk drawer. After all, the senator had a very clear road map of where he wanted to go. In June, during a speech in Washington, Schumer laid out seven principles that he said would guide the legislation. Yet, five months later, no bill has been unveiled.

Hence, I think immigration reform activists should flood Schumer's office with 2009 calendars with a red circle around Labor Day.

The smart money says that Schumer -- either on his own, or at the urging of the White House -- decided to hold the legislation until next spring to give the Senate time to wrap up the all-consuming health care reform debate. That's not an unreasonable decision.

Except for one thing. By putting off the immigration reform debate until the spring, Schumer puts it that much closer to another Labor Day -- Labor Day 2010 -- when lawmakers will be spending much of their time back home trying to win re-election. So the window for debating comprehensive immigration reform, which was never that large anyway, got a lot smaller.

For an idea of how small, listen to a congressman who remains committed to achieving comprehensive immigration reform. During a recent interview on National Public Radio's "Tell Me More," Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said he expected Congress to debate the issue in February and March.

This sounds right. The debate can't go much further beyond early spring because members would have to vote on specific bills in May before their summer recess. And the abbreviated schedule means that the odds of passing something next year are growing much longer.

So thanks, Chuck. By breaking your promise to start this debate by Labor Day, you helped undermine the very cause you appeared to be championing just a few months ago. The only silver lining in all this is that you've demonstrated pretty clearly that, sometimes, those on the left flinch when they should fight. (Schumer's office did not respond to a request for comment.)

Gutierrez has now stepped into that leadership void and announced that he's planning, in the next few weeks, to unveil his own 10-point plan for comprehensive immigration reform. At an immigration rally in Washington last month, Gutierrez laid out the core principles behind his bill. They are: creating a pathway to earned legalization; ensuring more effective border enforcement; allowing for more humane interior enforcement (which implies an end to workplace raids); ensuring that Americans get the first crack at jobs; improving employer verification systems; preserving family unity; managing future flows of workers; ensuring legalization specifically for agricultural workers; giving students a special pathway to earned legalization whether they go to college or not; and promoting the integration of immigrants into U.S. society.

There are some good ideas in there and a couple of bad ones. For instance, we shouldn't stop raiding businesses and we shouldn't start protecting U.S. workers from foreign competition. But overall, there is plenty to debate. If Gutierrez follows through with his pledge to introduce this legislation, he'll deserve credit for stepping up to the plate when others backed away from it.

Now, if you'll excuse me. I've got to run out and buy some calendars.

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

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