There is hope for the human race yet. President Bush finally got something almost right.

His temporary worker program for illegal immigrants is not perfect. But it’s a good start. And it’s a lot better than the immigrant bashing we still hear from most conservative Republicans, led by my MSNBC colleague Pat Buchanan and former California Gov. Pete Wilson.

Unlike hardliners in his own party, the president has decided to face reality. There are 8 to 12 million people in this country illegally, most of them from Mexico. Most of them have jobs and, like other waves of immigrants before them, are working hard to raise their families and build a better America.

It used to be, you only found undocumented workers in California’s Central Valley, and in California, Arizona and Texas border towns. No longer. They live, work, drive, shop and are an important part of the economy of every state. I even see many of them in southern Delaware where, when I was growing up, you never saw a person of color.

Here’s the reality. These people are not taking jobs from Americans. They are doing jobs – picking crops, washing cars, cleaning homes, killing chickens, clearing brush – that Americans don’t want and won’t apply for. Out-of-work high-tech workers aren’t going to pick lettuce or wash dishes at Denny’s, no matter how much you pay them.

Here’s the other reality. These people are not going home. They’re not packing up voluntarily. And the federal government is not going to line up millions of buses and take them south of the border. There will be no Gestapo-like mass deportation.

Besides, let’s be honest, we don’t want them all going home. They’re doing important jobs. Jobs we depend on. And jobs that free up Americans to go out and get better jobs. If all undocumented workers did go home, as Tom Donahue, head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, pointed out, we’d have to shut down the country.

So what to do about the problem? Bush came to the same conclusion Ronald Reagan did in 1986: Deal with it! Reagan did so by offering total amnesty to 3 million. Bush does so by matching “any willing employer with any willing employee.” In other words, where employers and employees agree, undocumented workers receive a temporary, renewable three-year visa. During that time, they may freely leave and re-enter the country. And afterward, they may apply for a permanent green card or citizenship.

It’s a win-win. It’s an advantage to workers because it provides them with legal status, freedom of movement and freedom from fear of being turned in to the INS. But it’s an advantage to us also, because we can still depend on their good work and the government will now have a record of the undocumented – and collect payroll taxes from their employers.

Again, it’s not the perfect plan. Bush’s program does not include a living wage. It does not provide protection for the families of undocumented workers, who still live in the shadows of the law. And there is no guarantee that temporary permits will not expire before permanent status is granted, thereby putting millions of workers at risk of deportation.

But at least the Bush plan is a new beginning. Now it’s up to Congress to flesh out the details and improve it. Legislation introduced last year by Congressman Howard Berman, D-Calif., already corrects most of the shortfalls in the Bush plan and represents the beginning of a compromise.

You know George Bush is in trouble when I’m the only one defending him. In fact, as a yellow-dog Democrat, I admit it pains me to say anything halfway nice about the man. And I admit he may pick up a few votes among Latinos for treating them like human beings, not criminals.

Personally, I remain confident there are still plenty of reasons for Latinos to vote against Bush in 2004. But, political gain or not, he is still doing the right thing. That’s what’s important.

We are a nation of immigrants, and we are a better, stronger nation because of it, Bush said in announcing his plan. For a moment, he sounded like the compassionate conservative he once pretended to be. If you closed your eyes, you might even have thought you were listening to a liberal Democrat.

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