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What Would Comprehensive Immigration Reform Look Like If the Feds Got Off Their Duffs?

An immigrant who comes here to take a prestigious position at a company or university can wait a decade for a green card granting permanent residence, Leopold says, only to find at the last minute that he didn't win the visa lottery. He comes here, launches a career, puts down family roots, and then years later discovers he's out of luck.

"It's a very unattractive situation to come into if you are highly educated and you have skills that are marketable elsewhere," he says.

Other countries that want to recruit the same people have streamlined their systems. "Canada and Europe understand this," he says, "and they are marketing themselves to the best and the brightest that would normally come here."

Irina Plumlee, an immigration lawyer in Dallas, says hiring a highly qualified immigrant is not cheap. It's the employer who must pay the government fees and legal costs.

"Let's say you pay $5,000 to $6,000 to get an initial work permit [for your prospective employee], which is good for three years," she says. "Then let's say you would spend another $5,500 to extend that for another three years. If you want go for a green card, that's about $10,000, ballpark."

One immigrant, $20,500. Why pay that much to hire a foreigner? Plumlee says employers pay it because in many industries and professions, the search for top talent is now a highly competitive global quest.

"Each country wants to select the best and the brightest for itself, and I think the immigrants play that game as well."

Leopold says the American system, already archaic, will only become more forbidding if Congress starts threatening employers with jail for getting the paperwork wrong and begins expelling immigrants on a wholesale basis for status violations. Then, he predicts, most American employers will just stop hunting for top global talent.

But the immigration issue is not only about immigrants. The flow of people across borders is a fundamental element of the nation's international trade policy, of which the North American Free Trade Agreement is the centerpiece.

NAFTA is an attempt by Canada, Mexico, and the United States to create a combined market bulky enough to compete and bargain effectively with Europe and the Pacific Rim. It bonds the United States at both hips with Canada and Mexico.

The U.S. Census lists Mexico as our second biggest trade partner for exports after Canada, with a share twice the size of what we sell to China. Mexico is our third-largest partner for imports, after China and Canada. It is our third-largest trade partner for exports and imports combined.

Trade and immigration are a horse and carriage that have to go together, according to Robert V. Kemper, a cultural anthropologist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas who has studied these patterns: "You can't say yes to the money and no to the people. It doesn't work that way."

The people who realize how much money it is don't want to say no to it. In a March 11, 2009, hearing of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce Walter Bastian said, "The amount of trade that goes back and forth across the southern border probably comes to about a half a million dollars a minute.

"Try to figure that out," he told the committee. "Per minute, every minute of the year . . . are talking about huge volumes of trade."

Not everybody loves NAFTA. Todd Tucker, research director at Global Trade Watch, a Washington advocacy group, says NAFTA itself is churning instability within Mexico by stripping away domestic-trade protection for Mexican agricultural products. The terms of NAFTA allowed cheaper American agricultural products to invade Mexico's domestic market, putting millions of Mexican farm workers out of work. Many flowed from southern to northern Mexico, Tucker says, only to find not-hiring signs on factories at the border, where the American economic crisis was having a strong effect. The churn of NAFTA, he claims, also provides a lot of the push propelling hundreds of thousands of poor Mexicans north into the United States.

If Tucker is right, that's only one more reason for the United States to take a constructive approach to its Latino immigrant population. And that is not what Mexican leaders see us doing.

Last April, on the same day Governor Brewer signed Arizona's immigrant crackdown law, Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa issued a statement saying in part, "Criminalization is not the way to resolve undocumented immigration."

President Felipe Calderón called the Arizona law an "obstacle to solving the shared problems of the border region." Calderón always has insisted the United States needs to figure out one of two things: 1) a way to stop hiring Mexicans or 2) a way to hire them legally, so that coming here and accepting an offer of work won't turn a Mexican into a criminal.

The even greater injustice of the current arrangement may be luring immigrants here to work but leaving them outside the community of the law. The same August 12 VVM story painted a horrific picture of helpless immigrants held in "pain houses" by kidnappers who dial up the relatives of their captives so families can listen by cell phone to the screams of their loved ones as they are tortured to extort ransom money.

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