Op-Ed: IT IS TOO EARLY to tell whether President Bush’s proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws in a radical way will be successful. The lack of legislative preparation for the project — as well as of crucial details — could give some credence to the cynics’ view that this initiative is merely political posturing during an election year.p. Nevertheless, the importance of the president’s proposals should not be underestimated. Not only does this initiative bring to the forefront a debate that is long overdue, but it also seeks a compromise position between those who advocate for a guest worker program and those who lobby for the regularization of undocumented migrants.p. Most important, however, the initiative introduces a much needed balance to the current debate by recognizing that immigration reform is necessary for reasons of economics, security, and equity. By linking the millions of immigrant workers in this country to the optimal performance of the economy, the proposal allows us to begin to talk seriously about the demand side of the equation instead of focusing solely on the issue of supply.p. That the current immigration policy is broken is beyond question. An important reason is that until now (as was the case for many years with the drug issue) the national debate on migration has tended to overwhelmingly emphasize the supply side — “they are coming here because we are rich and they are not.” Concentrating on the conditions of supply of immigrants, of course, is far less difficult politically, less divisive socially, is supported by previously held stereotypes, and it dissipates guilt by concentrating attention on the illegal status of the person. If the problem is supply, the answer obviously lies with interdiction.p. But severe interdiction would wreck the economy — just think of a $5 head of lettuce. Accordingly, this approach has led to many millions of dollars spent not so much on protecting our borders as on making these workers invisible, forcing undocumented migrants to enter through the most unpopulated and inhospitable terrain, causing the deaths of an estimated 2,000 people since 1997. Once here, they live hidden lives, open to exploitation by unscrupulous employers and criminals.p. Moreover, the consequences of these policies affect the nation as well: As a result of the tightened border, immigrants stay longer, and often decide to bring their families, acts that increase the chance that the migration is a permanent one. Given the dangers and obstacles, immigrants have come to increasingly rely on networks of smugglers to get them into the country.p. Finally, in terms of security, the evolution of well-developed and experienced criminal networks whose sole reason for being is the trafficking of human beings and contraband is a phenomenally bad idea in an age of terrorists and weapons of mass destruction.p. The reality of the demand for immigrant workers by the US economy can be proven by the growth of remittances over the past years. In 2001, Mexicans sent back an estimated $9 billion to their families. This amount was widely expected to fall with the decline of the economy and the increased security after 9/11. Instead, in 2003, remittances are estimated to have reached $13 billion, far surpassing manufacturing and tourism and competing with petroleum as Mexico’s top foreign currency earner.p. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, remittances from the United States to Latin America and the Caribbean could reach some $30 billion this year, with growth “likely to continue and potentially to accelerate.”p. One thing should remain clear: Although the president has talked of not rewarding those who came here illegally, the proposal can ultimately only work if it includes a serious plan for allowing those immigrants already here to earn the right to regularize their situation. Many have children who are citizens, and many more arrived as children themselves, making this the only society they have ever known. If there is no mechanism present beyond a renewable three-year permit, it is doubtful whether many established immigrants will risk exposing themselves to the authorities, and it is equally doubtful that the initiative would achieve its aims.p. The United States still desperately needs the cheap — and dependable — labor of immigrants to process meat, manufacture furniture, care for children, and wash dishes. And as the population ages, the nation will need the children of the current migrants to be the workers of tomorrow.p. The president’s immigration initiative has yet to be fully defined, and serious questions remain about its ability to pass the current Congress. It may well prove to be a political ploy to attract the growing number of Latino voters, or a welcome olive branch to President Vicente Fox before his meeting with Bush Monday in Monterrey. Even so, the debate can now proceed on the basis of a more balanced and rational view of the costs and benefits of immigration.p. p. Allert Brown-Gort is associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame. p. ? Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.