Immigration compromise imminent

The Minutemen volunteers now keeping watch for illegal immigrants on the Arizona-Mexico border can fulminate about lawbreakers all they want, but the facts on the ground guarantee their complaint will not really matter.

That’s because the estimated 12 million illegals now in this country are not leaving, and no one is about to throw them out. The pressing need today, then, is not for punishment or criminalization, but for ways to assimilate them while also protecting borders and keeping the numbers stable.

An attempt at this will be the essence of the federal compromise today’s heated debate in Congress will surely produce.

Much of this was put in bas relief by the landmark demonstrations of last month and those that have continued since. Before March, no demonstration in American history ever involved as many as 10 percent of the persons affected by whatever issue aroused the event.

That’s why it meant so much when gigantic crowds turned out across California and the rest of the nation to protest tough immigration measures OKed by the House of Representatives.

There were at least 500,000 in Los Angeles, 300,000 in Chicago, 200,000 in New York City and tens of thousands more in places like San Jose and Atlanta. Together, they added up to almost 2 million by police estimates, and more if you accept the figures purveyed by march sponsors.

In short, if you accept three things - the police numbers, the federal estimate of 12 million illegal immigrants now residing in this country and the assumption that most demonstrators were undocumented - then this was proportionately the largest demonstration ever involving persons affected by one issue.

The huge demonstrations and many smaller ones by high school students that followed made it plain that one aim of hard-line anti-illegal immigrant advocates will never happen: No one can deport every illegal alien.

Which means some kind of compromise must occur, and that’s just what appears to be emerging from the ongoing debate in the U.S. Senate.

While sheer numbers preclude any law demanding deportation of all illegals, there will be a larger-than-ever effort to secure borders. Few in Congress are resisting the idea of building large walls covering hundreds of miles in border areas that get the most illegal traffic.

But harboring or employing illegals will almost surely not become a felony, as the House bill provides. Not only would enforcement require a host of new federal agents, but it could lead to arrests of clergymen and others guilty of little more than feeding and housing the desperately needy.

Less clear is the shape of the guest worker plan also likely to be part of the eventual compromise. There is too much opposition to allow a repeat of the amnesty program OKed by President Ronald Reagan in 1986, one that produced more than 3 million new United States citizens.

But a recent experiment by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein debunked the common claim of anti-immigration activists who argue that American citizens or legal immigrants can be found to fill virtually all jobs now taken by illegal immigrants. Feinstein had welfare departments in all 58 California counties post notices advertising jobs in agriculture, detailing locations and working conditions. Not one person responded anywhere in the state, she reports.

But it must be done. Strawberries and almonds and oranges must be harvested. Cars and dishes need to be washed and hotel rooms cleaned. When the Minutemen helped cause a momentary drop in illegal immigration last fall, farms throughout the Central Valley reported severe labor shortages and complained they might lose part of their crops.

So immigrant labor is necessary, and it will continue. But history indicates that guest workers won’t usually return home when their allotted time is up, instead blending into the population and the economy.

So far, no one offers a remedy for this reality.

Write to political columnist Thomas Elias at