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Originally published Thursday, July 2, 2009 at 3:42 PM

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Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Obama's practical immigration-reform approach: Legalize status of illegal workers

President Obama has added comprehensive immigration reform to his ambitious first-year agenda. His approach of cracking down on the border while legalizing the status of workers in the U.S. illegally is a responsible and humane approach.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

Take the test

TEST YOUR CIVICS aptitude with the sample U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services test: http://www.uscis.gov/files/-nativedocuments/100q.pdf

Question No. 58 on the sample civics test for immigrants studying to become naturalized U.S. citizens reads:

"What is one reason colonists came to America?"

A federal official quizzing prospective citizens would accept any of these answers: freedom, political liberty, religious freedom and economic opportunity.

Ask any of the 500 immigrants expected to be naturalized at Seattle Center Saturday, and you are likely to get similar answers about why they came to America.

Last week, President Obama acknowledged this tradition of America as a destiny for freedom and liberty. "... this is a nation of immigrants," he said.

But he was not talking about the 6,000 people expected to be naturalized on the nation's 233rd anniversary in ceremonies from Seattle to Baghdad, the latter for active members of the military.

No, this ambitious president had just emerged from a meeting with congressional leaders where he was reigniting efforts to enact comprehensive immigration reform. Here's his full quote:

"I'm confident if we enter into this with the notion that this is a nation of laws that have to be observed and this is a nation of immigrants," he said, "then we're going to create a stronger nation for our children and our grandchildren."

Obama outlined principles he'd like to see embodied in legislation, including tightening up the sieve that is the U.S. border with Mexico and cracking down on employers who knowingly hire workers who are in the U.S. illegally.

But the most stunning part of his comments was how adamant he was that reform must include an "effective way to recognize and legalize the status of undocumented workers that are here now." He would expect them to pay fines, learn English and cross other hurdles.

That's where the battle begins. "What part of illegal don't you understand?" howl opponents who want all 12 million people without legal status ejected.

The opponents' facile argument ignores 23 years of the federal government's astoundingly irresponsible lack of enforcement of what was supposed to be the once-and-for-all Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986.

Opponents also argue these people are a burden on education, health care and welfare systems — an argument that ignores that whole industries rely on them. These people are here, serving up your plates at the service-club luncheon, reroofing your house and picking the luscious cherries served at your Fourth of July barbecue.

An April study by OneAmerica, the Seattle-based immigration advocacy organization, asserts that Washington state's economy could be hurt if these workers were removed. The report suggests the state could lose as much as $46 billion in expenditures. Nationwide, the Perryman Group estimates that removing these workers would wipe from the U.S. economy annually $1.8 trillion in spending and $652 billion in output.

The Washington Sheriff's Association this week became the first state law-enforcement association to endorse comprehensive immigration reform. In a letter to Washington's U.S. senators, President Ken Irwin, Yakima County's sheriff, wrote, "We urge Congress and the president to enact a comprehensive immigration law that secures the borders and addresses the reality of illegal workers in a comprehensive manner so that this nation can move forward as one."

The sheriffs and their deputies on crime-fighting's front lines believe their communities will be safer if undocumented workers are brought out of the shadows. It is a pragmatic position that the naysayers, not to mention members of Congress, should embrace.

The U.S. government must take responsibility for conditions that led to, even fostered, a market for workers without legal resident status.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is kriley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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