03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Immigration Reform's Curtain Call: A Hollywood Happy Ending

The illegal immigration debate appears to be taking a sabbatical here in Colorado and much of the nation. Not wanting to hog the spotlight, or perhaps exhausted by all the posturing and pandering that has effectively immobilized any realistic resolution, the issue is somewhat silenced. Most likely, however, the debate has temporarily deferred to health care reform - unless said reform concerns illegal immigrants. So it's not exactly a full-fledged absence or retreat from public discourse. As leaders, legislators and immigration reform, itself, take a winter recess from the increasingly frigid American political terrain, the people at the debate's crux remain frozen in a legal purgatory; stranded in a no-man's land. With both the job market and immigration reform in a deep freeze, and their opponents' unlikely to thaw anytime soon, some have reportedly returned home. Those remaining fade farther into the so-called shadows, obscured beneath a dark cloud of suspicion, fear, unrest and anger.

Time flies. Seems like yesterday the population emerged from those shadows for a brief but brilliant moment during the plucky marches of 2006, Today, the picture has dissolved from shots of expectant exuberance to more recent stills of raids and uncertain stasis. The energetic footage of yesteryear's marches is distilled in freeze frames of dashed hopes and possibilities now that advocates and opponents have battled to a draw. We borrowed their rallying cry, "Si, se puede," and their exuberance, translating both into an American expression for action, change and hope that energized last year's presidential campaign. And proved that, yes, we could. "Do what?" cynics might ask. Win elections, for sure. Less certain but still hopeful: make the nation and world more peaceful, just, safe and tolerant. But while the catchphrase proved prescient, empowering and triumphant for those of us who borrowed its message last year preceding Election Day, the phrase today isn't much more than powerful and pretty rhetoric for the population that put it - and themselves - on bold display during those marches

Congress will likely resurrect an attempt at immigration reform in the next year. It will revive not only the failed McCain-Kennedy Immigration Reform Bill (or one similar), but also the passions and emotions we witnessed during that effort. We're left to wonder, what is so difficult about repairing a broken system? Opponents of the bill celebrated its demise, claiming victory. But I'm not clear on what that supposed victory accomplished other than derailing a reasonable and realistic resolution. Many of the immigrants they rail against are still living and residing in the U.S. without official permission or protections. Their victory was nothing more than a roadblock placed on a proposed path to citizenship. But that roadblock isn't anything other than a detour. And skirting around the problem isn't going to solve it.

Immigration, illicit or otherwise, has always been a painful process. Just regard the cowboys and Indians who clashed when the West was won. Whether the West was actually won or lost is still a matter of contentious debate. Was it Lady Liberty, boundless opportunity or unbridled opportunism that triumphed? Or were all three the victors that, pardon the cliché, cloaked themselves in the stars and stripes like wolves in sheep clothing? Some historians and Indian activists still believe so. Most born in the 50 states don't ponder the past much, simply taking for granted their American citizenship as both birthright and destiny; perhaps the same attitude that children born to illegal immigrants will have in future decades.

Of course, there has always been an almost requisite resistance against sizeable numbers of immigrants of all colors, nationalities and stripes in our history. Irish and Italian immigrants are just two examples. They battled resentment, anger and at least some discrimination when they arrived on American soil in waves. Many, like today's Latino immigrants, were unskilled. More than a few were undocumented, without papers or, in today's vernacular, "illegal." Attempts to limit immigration followed on the heels of nativist umbrage. Today, we're seeing much of the same. And, like today, not only emotions but economics played a primary part. In the past, it was Italians or Irish fleeing poverty at home and working backbreaking hours and jobs for budget-breaking wages. Now, Mexicans, Guatemalans and other Latinos perform the same roles and tasks. A familiar refrain and plot but populated by a different cast. Call it the immigration sequel for the new millennium.

After an intermission distracted by health care reform, international relations and a nearly collapsed economy, wait for the second act of immigration reform to hit center stage. There will be plenty of drama and intrigue. The immigrants in question are still working and waiting in the wings for the next national debate on the incendiary issue. And much of the Tea Party crowd, which overlaps with the Cries From the Border and Minutemen clique, will discover a new stage to storm. Both critics and extras in this drama, they will attempt to direct the show, script the storyline and determine the outcome. The denouement is still to come even if we hope the nadir already has. But if opponents have their way, there will be no happy or even realistic ending. Just a slow fade into yet another intermission and the immigration reform spectacle will resemble a Hollywood blockbuster - never resolved and endlessly exhumed in a series of sequels until everyone wonders why it was a blockbuster in the first place. The difference here is that immigration reform is a real reality show where the players don't shed their roles at the end of the workday. For many, the workday doesn't end. A brief break and a change of clothes and venue are all that separates one job from the next. And this reality show doesn't allow cinematic fantasies to determine the outcome. Contrary to whatever nativists might believe or hope for, Washington isn't going be able to wave a wand and cause an estimated 12 million people to evaporate into the sunset, clicking their slippers like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, chanting, "There's no place like home, there's no place like home."

But all scenarios aside, this production begs for a curtain call. And a finale that might not thrill everyone involved, but at least reflect reality and compassion. Forget the misleading dialogue, like the "amnesty" epithet lobbed by opponents of any immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship. A path to citizenship isn't amnesty. It's not a giveaway. It's earned and not without penalties and restrictions. Actually, it's about the closest thing to a Hollywood happy ending this drama can expect.