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Originally published Tuesday, April 20, 2010 at 4:04 PM

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Lynne Varner / Times editorial columnist

Immigration reform must look past our border with Mexico

Meaningful immigration reform will only come when our collective narrative moves beyond poor Mexicans to a multihued, more honest portrait, writes Times editorial columnist Lynne K. Varner.

Seattle Times editorial columnist

I was concerned about the stubbornly Hispanic depiction of immigration reform long before I spied this national news headline: "Why so few blacks join immigration rallies." Better question: Why is immigration reform seen as a Hispanic issue? Why is President Obama vulnerable to losing only Hispanic voters if his administration doesn't move toward immigration reform?

Two factors are usually cited to support America's skewed portrait. Hispanics are America's fastest-growing minority. Three-quarters of illegal immigrants are Hispanic. But to borrow an oft-repeated phrase from civil-rights advocates, "We may have come over on different ships, but we're in the same boat now."

According to the Pew Research Center, African and Caribbean immigrants tend to be educated and better off economically than their counterparts from Latin America. They tend to arrive in America legally through a relative's sponsorship or on a student visa. Perhaps they don't see themselves in a struggle that has largely centered on jobs and how to protect this country's borders. But the many Africans arriving here as war refugees are changing that picture.

But meaningful immigration reform will only come when our collective narrative moves beyond poor Mexicans to a multihued, more honest portrait. Imagine the powerful movement and sense of political urgency that could be created by Africans, Asians and Europeans, even Canadians, demanding changes to the tortuous and lengthy process to enter and live in the U. S. legally.

Casting immigration reform as beneficial to Latinos only weakens the effort politically, particularly in Congress, where politicians are constantly weighing the balance of votes they can gain versus those they can lose.

It is also a matter of honesty. Unless their voices are heard, no one will know about the 1 million undocumented Asian-Pacific Islanders and another 3 to 5 million here legally but who have been waiting years, even decades, to bring over family members.

For those who think the immigration debate is about how tall to build the fence, the story of Benito Valdez provides a counterweight. Valdez is one of the last survivors of World War II's "Great Raid" at Cabanatuan in the Philippines. Valdez and other Filipinos who fought alongside American soldiers were granted asylum here and promised they could bring their families.

Valdez is in his 90s. His wife has died. He is still waiting for his children, now grown and still in the Philippines waiting their turn in our protracted immigration queue.

Other aspects cry out for the attention of immigration reform. A lopsided system issues 5,000 visas annually for about 500,000 service-sector jobs. Similar disparities exist on the high-skills side, where H1-B visas are snatched up as soon as the lottery opens. No surprise then that Microsoft opened an office in Canada to be able to hire more foreign workers.

Even for those workers of the highest skills and pay, complications go beyond homesickness. The Seattle-based immigration advocacy reform group, OneAmerica, easily found 1,000 employees at Microsoft willing to sign a letter to U.S. Sens. Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell urging reform. While the software company's former chairman, Bill Gates, has been an outspoken advocate of reform, it was a coup for OneAmerica to find employees willing to do the same.

Immigration problems trap people in so many ways, from the crop picker constantly looking over his shoulder to the spouse not allowed to work.

Even crime has been inflated into an issue affecting only Latinos. Most people don't have a problem with harsh penalties for immigrants who break the law. They might think differently if they knew that ordinary run-ins with the law, such as shoplifting and possession of marijuana, are deportable crimes. It is a crazy system in which ordinary run-ins with the law can dramatically complicate the lives of would-be citizens.

Immigration reform is a broad, complicated topic for those who cross our borders illegally and those who are recruited in. To address it, advocacy and policy must go beyond a fence.

Lynne K. Varner's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is lvarner@seattletimes.com

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