Few observers predicted the profundity of global political changes in the first quarter of 2011.  

The Middle East, still the source of most of the world’s energy, has witnessed civilian protestors toppling despots and prompting autocrats to invite foreign-state and mercenary armies to quell peaceful demonstrations and slaughter citizens. Libya’s never-predictable Muammar el-Qaddafi, having nearly routed indigenous rebels centered around Benghazi, faces a UN-authorized no-fly zone and aerial attacks mounted at the behest of the Arab League, an organization now critical of air assaults that may provoke a full-blown war.      

Japan, no longer the world’s second largest economy, is shaken by a 9.0 earthquake and tsunami that caused the deaths of probably 10,000 or more citizens and devastated the northeastern countryside. The resulting radiation fallout from severely damaged nuclear plants now contaminates the food supply and threatens public health. The devastation has also rocked the nuclear energy industry and called into question whether fission power will replace fossil fuels anytime soon.

With these events capturing public attention, President Obama is in Brazil, the worlds seventh-largest economy, the global leader in sustainable bio-fuels and ninth-largest oil producer with huge off-shore reserves.  The President hopes to return home with business deals that produce American jobs and secure access to less volatile sources of energy.  Whether or not he succeeds on this trip, he could not have failed to hear the sharp criticism leveled against American policy by Brazil’s President, Dilma Rousseff, who chided the U.S. for its past “empty rhetoric.”  As The New York Times reported, a “deeper relationship [with Brazil],” she said, must “be a construct amongst equals.”

The two presidents failed, however, to reach an agreement that would allow Brazilians to enter the U.S. as business visitors or tourists under the Visa Waiver Permanent Program. Nor did President Obama endorse Brazil’s call for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, although on his state visit to India — according to the NYT — he “lent support to that country’s hopes for a permanent seat.”

In this world of ever-erupting turbulence, a functioning immigration system would serve to promote America’s foreign policy and economic interests, while honoring its tradition as a nation hospitable to hard-working immigrants.  Beyond securing the border against terrorists, criminals and ne’er-do-wells, an efficient and effectual immigration system would encourage investment, innovation and job-creation.  It would provide orderly systems for family reunification and refuge for the persecuted.  It would also bear marks of humility and wisdom, recognizing that our diversity is our greatest strength and that our actions abroad often stoke the push factors propelling and compelling people to breach our borders.

The present immigration system in the U.S. merely pays lip service to these objectives while suffering from malign neglect and willful meanspiritedness. Despite a 1986 federal law prohibiting employers from hiring workers whom they know or should know lack the legal right to work, the agencies charged with enforcement have yet to agree on the definition of “employment.” Notwithstanding a 1996 law punishing illegal overstays, these same agencies continue to split hairs over the distinction between violation of nonimmigrant “status” and “unlawful presence,” have yet to publish a rule defining what it even means to “maintain [legal] status,” and still assert that a foreign citizen can be work-authorized yet have no immigration status

Most of us in this nation of immigrators bewail the system but do little to insist on adult conversations among lawmakers that might lead to pragmatic and humane solutions. In a time of focus on deficit reduction, we want more border security but would never tolerate a tax increase to pay for it.

Yet the candle-lighters among us, who’d rather not just curse the darkness, see a few glimmers, of luminosity. 

Business leaders in Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Florida, Kansas, Oklahoma and, yes, even Arizona, have beaten back efforts to make state immigration laws still more draconian.  A leading labor union blasts the Administration’s senseless and expensive immigration enforcement policy, while the Organization of American States faults us for inhumane immigrant detention practices.  A Tea Party leader — Dick Armey — says that if necessary to care for his babies he would break the law, ironically, on essentially the same grounds that spur unauthorized migrants to cross the border looking for work.  Hispanic members of the GOP propose a comprehensive and largely workable 12-point plan for immigration reform. Mainstream reporters such as NBCs Tom Brokaw are beginning to focus attention on America’s brain drain — the loss of talented foreign workers who’ve become so fed up with the quota backlogs, visa-screening delays and hassles on reentry to the U.S. that they take the education we provided them and leave to compete with the U.S. from their native lands. A new Start-Up Visa bill has emerged (but not as user-friendly as the U.K.’s) to woo foreign investors.

Although movement on immigration reform in Utah is heartening, the country cannot have the states enacting 50 versions of foreign policy or an equal number of immigration codes.  Only the federal government is positioned to steer a unified course on immigration. We can start by asking why the prosperous and rapidly growing BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are shut out from the E-2 treaty-based nonimmigrant visa category.  This entrepreneurial visa allows foreign investors from select treaty countries to start U.S. businesses quickly with whatever minimum amount of capital would ordinarily be sufficient to begin operations and start hiring, rather than invest the minimum $500,000 and create the ten jobs needed for the investor green card, the EB-5, with its costly tax consequences as the added price for permanent residency.

America has waited too long to revamp its immigration laws.  The usual three pillars of comprehensive reform (border security, worksite enforcement and legalization for the unauthorized in our midst) are not enough to make America globally competitive and enticing.  How many more whirlwinds of global change must jostle and buffet us before our leaders in Washington realize that we are falling from our perch as top dog?  Economic prosperity and job creation must be our prime immigration policy, with pragmatism and humane treatment closely in tow.  The sane voices must grow louder and more insistent. Outspoken business and union leaders, and one Tea Party icon, coupled with contrary-to-type Hispanic conservatives, and constant prodding from new economic powerhouses abroad — all are a promising start.