Last month, the joint Lincoln Clubs of Orange County, San Diego, and Northern California went on their annual trip to Washington, D.C. to visit with Members of Congress, U.S. Senators and think tank leaders.  We talked mostly about the economy, jobs, and pension reform.  The issue of immigration was addressed in a session with James Carafano, Director of the Douglas & Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

Carafano was one of our most engaging speakers.  He said that everyone on all sides of the immigration issue was angry at the current Presidential Administration for the handling of immigration policy and enforcement.  No one “Inside the Beltway” could see a pathway towards meaningful policies to address border security, a guest worker program, or effective enforcement policies aimed at those who come here illegally and those businesses that knowingly break the law by hiring them.

This week, the Lincoln Club of Orange County unveiled “a three-point, common-sense approach” on Immigration Reform.  Their blueprint may be the beginning of a renewed new discussion, focused on economic empowerment rather than welfare-state dependence.

Immigration policy is a political landmine for lawmakers, even though more and more businesses are acknowledging that border security is only one facet of the discussion that must be addressed when talking about employers’ and workers’ responsibilities under the law.

The Orange County plan supports an approach to immigration reform that includes (1) additional border security measures, (2) creation of a guest worker program that allows illegal immigrants to get temporary work permits if they meet certain criteria such as proof of employment, passing a criminal background check, paying fees and taxes and (3) calls for a streamlined high-tech system for employers and government to enforce the program.

Conservatives and liberals in California need to abandon the sharp-tongue, wedge campaign rhetoric and engage in the dialogue from a realistic standpoint of how policy impacts our economy.  They need to work together and engage employers and workers from all sectors of the California economy.  Immigration reform impacts all Californians who care about our economic base.  This is especially true for Central Valley growers and workers in high tech Silicon Valley, major pillars of the California economy.

The dialogue that has taken place thus far has been limited to pricey attorneys, political consultants, special interest groups and individuals who wish to paint immigration as a wedge issue.  What good does that discussion do to restore California and American economy’s economic footing at a time when we must be innovative and create jobs?

When my grandparents came here from Lipari, Sicily and Castel Forte, Italy; they sought the American dream of making a better life for their family than the one they left behind.  They worked hard during the Great Depression and fought so that their children and grandchildren would have a better life.  Economic security and the “shining city on a hill” wasn’t something they thought was unattainable.  Their work ethic and values were passed along to all of their grandchildren.

If we don’t do something soon to effectively address illegal immigration through market based, sensible solutions, we’ll be stuck with an underground economy that will fill the labor force in our agriculture centers and big cities illegally.  That breeds more government-based, government-run solutions rather than economic vitality.

When I worked at the U.S. Labor Department in the previous Presidential Administration, we accomplished a great many things to reform outdated regulations and ease the regulatory environment so small businesses could create jobs.  What we failed to do was rally conservatives and liberals to common ground on immigration.  The current Administration had the same chance to make their mark when the President was elected with super majorities in both the U.S. Senate and U.S. House.  Now with a split Congress, attempts appear futile to enact meaningful, market based reform.

Some will say it’s too hard to enact an immigration policy that favors economic freedom and opportunity since our government seems intent on preserving a welfare state full of taxpayer funded entitlements.  But the key to the discussion is restoring economic freedom rather than stifling it.  Gravitation towards government-funded fixes must be replaced by gravitation towards market-based reforms, which favor high growth jobs and a better way of life.  That is the American dream that brought my Grandparents to this country – not the promise of a government handout.