Immigration Confusion

Thursday, March 2, 2006

THERE WILL come a point in the debate over President Bush's proposed temporary worker program for immigrants when those who favor the idea in principle will have to ask themselves whether a bad bill is better than none at all. Today, as the Senate Judiciary Committee begins discussion of a compromise proposal, that point is getting awfully close.

The bill on the table, a proposal put together by Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), is not all bad. Like the legislation sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) -- the most comprehensive attempt at immigration reform to date -- the bill would create a new temporary work visa. Those who obtained the visa could enter the country to do jobs that employers could not find Americans to fill, and they could remain for up to six years. The bill would also allow the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country to apply for temporary residency status after paying a fee and undergoing background and employment checks. As an attempt to find a compromise on immigration acceptable to all, the draft is laudable.

But the devil is in the details, and the details, unfortunately, are worrisome. In particular, we're concerned that in its current form, Mr. Specter's proposal could create a huge class of permanent guest workers: Neither current illegal residents, nor future holders of the temporary work visa, would in practice be able to acquire green cards or citizenship if this bill became law, no matter how long they remained here. Still worse are the impractical enforcement measures that Mr. Specter has included, presumably to mollify the anti-immigrant wing of his party. These put huge new responsibilities on local and state law enforcement agencies for arresting and deporting illegal immigrants, as well as adding multiple bureaucratic obstacles to the citizenship and visa processes.

Unfortunately, it's far from clear that the bill will be improved, either by the Judiciary Committee or by the Senate as a whole. Some committee members will propose changes that might ameliorate problems; others are readying lists of amendments that would make the bill even worse, such as a proposal to eliminate the right of children born in this country to U.S. citizenship. There is still room for compromise: Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) has proposed, for example, to divide the 11 million illegal immigrants into different groups based on their employment status and how long they've been in this country. But if no compromise is reached, it's hard to see how this bill is even worth passing. Surely the worst possible solution is to accept that the United States will host a permanent underclass of foreign workers with no political rights, living in permanent fear of all legal authorities.

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