How to Save Immigration Reform

By Fred Hiatt
Monday, June 26, 2006

Is immigration reform dead for this year, and this Congress? It's too soon for such a pronouncement, but things aren't looking good. Here's one idea that might revive the project.

Just about everyone agrees that reform is needed, but not everyone agrees on what "reform" means. To the House it means tougher enforcement. To the Senate it means enforcement plus a path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants and a guest-worker program for future arrivals. Any bill "comprehensive" enough to satisfy the Senate is unlikely to pass muster in the House; anything draconian enough for the House can't win 60 votes in the Senate.

The dilemma was sharpened last week when House Republicans announced that, rather than trying to work out a compromise, they would hold a series of public hearings during their August recess. Since all essential facts have long since been gathered, the hearings seem intended to intensify opposition to the Senate view.

It would be easy for supporters of comprehensive reform (like me) simply to blame xenophobes, racists and right-wing radio talk-show hosts for this state of affairs. It's true, after all, that many polls show that a majority of Americans want more than enforcement. It's possible therefore that August hearings will boomerang against House Republicans, who will come back in September ready to deal.

But what's striking is how universally candidates on the stump the past few weeks have reported that constituents are stirred up about immigration -- and that what they want is better border security. That's been the experience of Democratic candidates I've talked to in Maryland and Virginia; Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) says it was her experience as she recently campaigned (successfully) against a primary challenger in her Los Angeles area district.

All voters wanted to talk about, Harman said, was building fences, strengthening the border and keeping people out. "And these were Democrats," she said. "It was an eye-opener. I was really surprised."

It is not only right-wing Republicans, in other words, and certainly not only xenophobes, who want enforcement first. Many people remember the last reform, in 1986, as an effort that led to amnesty without improved enforcement, and so without providing any lasting solution. They're skeptical that employers of undocumented workers will be judged any more harshly this time or that the border will become less porous.

For at least some Republican legislators, that's the main argument for enforcement-first. In response, advocates of comprehensive reform worry, fairly enough, that enforcement-first would end up meaning enforcement-only. And enforcement-only has no chance of working.

But what if Congress passed enforcement-first as part of a package -- what you might call comprehensive-plus-sequencing? Tell the administration to build more fences, hire more border guards, develop the capability to issue tamper-proof ID cards -- and then open the path to legalization and jack up the number of green cards.

The trigger (in a year, say, or 18 months) would have to be input, not output -- administration effort, not some standard of decreased immigration flow that would be both impossible to achieve and impossible to measure. As a price for delay, advocates of comprehensive reform could insist on a large enough number of green cards, and a wide enough path to legalization, to be meaningful.

Advocates of comprehensive reform understandably will resist, because they see all strands of reform as inextricably linked and because delay always carries risk. Many advocates of enforcement-only will resist, too, in some cases because they oppose any increase in legal immigration.

But politics could drive both sides to reconsider. House Republicans may come to realize that they are at risk if Congress fails to pass anything. And senators who favor comprehensive reform may decide that a sequenced bill, which could be overturned only by affirmative votes of future Congresses, would be less risky -- and more helpful to more people -- than ending the year with no reform at all.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company