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Commentary: Where Is the Immigration Debate Headed?
 
Thomas J. Donohue, President and CEO, U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Can several seemingly unrelated news items on immigration provide insight into where the debate over this issue is headed and the prospects for a comprehensive reform deal?

Consider: New information from the Census Bureau shows that without immigrants, the populations of the nation's largest metro areas would be declining, including those of New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. Many smaller areas--such as Battle Creek, Michigan; Ames, Iowa; and Corvallis, Oregon--would also be losing people. The population of the New York metro area alone would have declined by 600,000 if not for an influx of 1 million immigrants from 2000 to 2006. Could there be a growing understanding that immigrants provide a vital economic boost to many of our major metropolitan areas?

Consider: On April 4, the first day employers could apply for H1B visas for highly skilled foreign workers, the entire annual allotment of 65,000 was exhausted in hours. In fact, 150,000 employers applied. There's a similar situation with the 66,000 H2B visas for low-skilled workers who are key to seasonal small businesses involved in agriculture, construction, landscaping, and other activities. Could there be a new appreciation for the need for highly skilled foreign workers who help maintain America's economic and technological leadership, and for unskilled workers who do the jobs American don't want, especially when the U.S. unemployment rate is at a near record low of 4.4% and Baby Boomers are beginning to retire?

Consider: The Wall Street Journal reported last week that as many as 12 million illegal immigrants may be filing tax returns and paying as much as $50 billion in taxes, with the strong encouragement of the IRS who says it wants their money whether they are here legally or not. A study last year found that most day laborers--three fourths of whom are undocumented--have families, attend church regularly, and participate in community activities. While breaking the law can never be condoned, could Americans be viewing illegal immigrants as people who are willing to work hard to achieve the American Dream?

Consider: President Bush yesterday delivered a speech on immigration reform that was praised by liberal lion Teddy Kennedy. Could a bipartisan deal be far behind?

How Americans answer these questions will determine whether comprehensive reform can be achieved. We are optimistic. There are many difficult details to work out--and emotions are running high on both sides--but we may have reached a tipping point. The need for new workers has become abundantly clear, the confidence in our ability to better secure our border is increasing, and the entrepreneurial, hard-working nature of immigrants is reminding our own citizens that we are a nation founded by such people. When it comes to immigration reform, it's time to get the job done.

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