Immigration Ugliness

Friday, September 22, 2006

THE CYNICAL immigration endgame of the 109th Congress isn't particularly surprising. But after a session in which the Senate actually managed to produce a bipartisan, comprehensive measure to overhaul the existing system, the latest, enforcement-only developments are nonetheless disappointing and dangerous.

The House has passed, and the Senate seems ready to go along with, a measure to require construction of a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border. That would cost at least $2 billion, and that's in addition to a $2.5 billion initiative, entrusted to Boeing Co. this week, to erect "virtual fences" along the northern and southern borders.

A fence would damage relations with Mexico, harm the environment and, especially in the absence of broader changes, be ineffective. Even if a foolproof fence could be placed along every mile of the border, it wouldn't eliminate illegal immigration. Perhaps half of those in the country illegally did not slip secretly across a border but arrived through official entry points, using fraudulent documents or coming in legally and overstaying their visas.

But the fence is, sadly, the least offensive of the measures under consideration. On Wednesday, the House approved an unnecessary and arguably unconstitutional bill to require voters to show photo identification to take part in federal elections beginning in 2008; in 2010, the ID would have to demonstrate proof of citizenship. This would effectively disenfranchise many poor and elderly Americans, who are less likely to have, or be able to obtain, such documentation. It responds to a non-problem. The manifold challenges of election administration do not include large numbers of noncitizens trying to vote. The Senate should not go along.

Yesterday, the House passed another batch of immigration-related measures, the worst of which would deputize state and local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws. The measure would permit, but not require, state and local police to arrest and detain illegal immigrants for even civil violations of federal immigration law. This would undermine the ability of law enforcement to deter and prosecute violent crime. As New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg told the Senate Judiciary Committee in July, "Do we really want people who could have information about criminals -- including potential terrorists -- to be afraid to go to the police?"

The most disappointing aspect of the debate is the passive posture of President Bush. Mr. Bush could have used his bully pulpit to make clear the importance of comprehensive reform. He could promise to veto the bills on the understanding that enforcement measures, even justifiable ones, will be needed as leverage to obtain the comprehensive program he says he wants. Instead, he's meekly following the worst instincts of his fellow Republicans. "Yes, I'll sign it into law," Mr. Bush told CNN, adding, "If your question is, 'Will I stop trying to push for a comprehensive reform?' The answer is, 'No, I won't stop trying to push for comprehensive reform.' " With pushing like this, who needs opponents?

© 2006 The Washington Post Company