The Obama administration's showdown with Arizona over immigration policy hits the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday in what's being shortsightedly billed as a battle of federal vs. states rights. Anyone who has been following the nation's debate over immigration and the presidential race knows much more is at stake.

The United States sorely needs immigration reform, not only to resolve longstanding issues over its more than 11 million undocumented immigrants, but also to ensure a vibrant economic future. By 2030, one in five Americans will be senior citizens, leading to a labor shortage of as many as 35 million, according to the Employment Policy Foundation.

Congress needs to pass sensible measures such as the DREAM Act to provide a pathway to legal residency for young adults brought to the country as children who earn diplomas or serve in the military. Today, more than ever, the United States needs immigration policies that reflect the demographic challenges ahead.

A new Pew study revealed that the number of Mexicans leaving the United States has surpassed the number entering, but GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney continues to call for a fence at the border. Although immigration reform has been championed by Republicans from President George W. Bush to John McCain, this week Romney declined to endorse a modified GOP version of the DREAM Act.

The Pew study confirmed what the Editorial Board stated in a Feb. 6 editorial ("Fact vs. fiction and illegal immigration"): The number of illegal immigrants in the United States has dropped significantly during the Obama administration. Among the factors: fewer U.S. jobs, stepped up immigration enforcement and Mexico's declining birth rate.

Arizona's harsh "make the illegal immigrants so miserable that they'll leave policy" is consistent with Romney's self-deportation push. Obama, on the other hand, says Arizona's approach is inhumane and fuels discrimination and harassment of Hispanics.

In Arizona vs. United States, one side believes Arizona's laws conflict with federal immigration policy; the other says they supplement them.

The Supreme Court's decision will not only affect Arizona, but other states that have enacted similarly severe laws -- Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah. Farmers in Alabama and Georgia have already complained that the harsher laws have created a shortage of immigrant workers needed to harvest their crops.

Among the issues the justices will weigh: whether Arizona law enforcement has the right to detain individuals suspected of being undocumented immigrants, and whether the state can make it a crime for undocumented immigrants to seek work or even step foot there.

Meanwhile, the federal government is actively enforcing existing laws, with a focus on those who repeatedly cross the border, drug traffickers, smugglers, violent felons and security risks. The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) said it arrested more than 3,100 illegal immigrants, including 56 in Minnesota, during a recent six-day nationwide sweep.

The Obama administration has already deported 1.2 million illegal immigrants, compared with the 1.6 million during the eight-year Bush administration. Even so, Romney unabashedly claims that Obama is soft on immigration. That simply is not true.

Meanwhile, both candidates need Hispanic voters to win the presidential race. They strongly supported Obama in 2008, but many are upset by the massive deportations. However, the GOP's hard-line rhetoric on immigration isn't the kind of talk that woos Hispanics voters.

Being humane doesn't mean being soft. Much of the political rhetoric also misses this point: Our country needs immigrants today, and it will need them even more in the future.


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