Steamboat Springs Congress goes back to work Thursday with a new Democratic majority and without a November election to worry about.
Let's hope that's enough to produce meaningful progress on a pressing national and local issue - immigration reform.
The year just ended produced lots of rhetoric on immigration but little else. At the state level, the legislature wasted a week on a special session that mostly gave lawmakers political cover to stump on. Yes, Colorado now has the strictest laws in the nation when it comes to preventing illegal immigrants from accessing state social services. But there was no evidence that was a problem to begin with. At least one study showed illegal immigrants' contributions to state income, sales and property taxes are equal to or greater than the cost to provide them services.
At the federal level, politicians managed lots of partisan debate but accomplished little reform. A month before the fall election, they approved a 700-mile, double-sided fence to be built along the border. But that was, at best, a largely symbolic gesture, since the bill included no funding for the fence, which will cost billions.
We also fully support efforts to better secure our southern border. Investing in additional personnel, equipment and training for Immigrations and Customs Enforcement is vital, especially in a post-Sept. 11 world. But enhancing border security does nothing to address the fundamental economic realities that always have and always will drive illegal immigration.
That's why meaningful immigration reform must include a guest-worker program, which President Bush has advocated for years and which the U.S. Senate included in legislation that died last year.
A guest-worker program would allow immigrants to fill much-needed jobs in the U.S., pay their share of taxes, obtain health insurance and go home knowing they will be able to return for work. It would allow the U.S. government to better document who is here and why. It would reduce the incentive that drives the worst element in the illegal immigration issue - human smugglers.
A recent NBC News special report - the 21st Century Immigrant story - showed the impact that illegal immigration is having on the Roaring Fork Valley, including Aspen and Vail. The eight-month investigation showed that the economy is thriving and growing, but also that it is very much dependent on illegal immigrant workers.
In Steamboat Springs, similar trends are occurring. Five years ago, there were a dozen English as a Second Language students in our school district; today, there are more than 100. More and more, unskilled jobs in the agriculture, construction and resort service industries are being filled by immigrants, no doubt many of them illegal. And those numbers are going to continue to rise, now that Colorado has passed legislation raising the state's minimum wage.
Those who advocate rounding up and deporting the 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in this country are ignoring the economic consequences of such an action.
There has to be a better way, a way that allows foreign workers to work jobs that will go unfilled without them, a way that brings those workers out of the shadows and lets them participate, financially and otherwise, in our society.
Shame on Congress if another year goes by without such reforms.