Immigration Reform, Take 2

Sunday, March 4, 2007

ADVOCATES OF sweeping measures to reform the nation's broken-down muddle of an immigration policy are preparing to enter the fray once again: A new bill may be introduced in Congress as early as this week. This time hopes are high that the political map has changed just enough to make success a real possibility. Beware: Those hopes will be realized only if everyone involved in last year's debacle has drawn the right lessons from Congress's failure to enact a meaningful law.

What are the lessons? President Bush, who favored last year's Senate bill but went limp when it came under attack by anti-reform forces in the House, should note that passivity in the face of his own party's hard-liners is a prescription for further disappointment. Republican leaders in the House, who killed last year's legislation, should conclude that they gained nothing by trying to whip up the party base with misleading talk of an "amnesty" for illegal immigrants -- and probably alienated droves of coveted Hispanic voters at the elections in November.

As for Democrats, who have squabbled among themselves but now run Congress, they must take note of an opportunity staring them in the face. They have a chance to exercise leadership and score a victory on a major domestic policy problem.

The early signs are generally encouraging. The authors of the most realistic legislation in the last Congress -- Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), and Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) -- are again preparing to introduce a bipartisan bill. As for Mr. Bush, he has also sounded the right notes by calling in his State of the Union address for a "legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country," and for resolving the status of more than 11 million illegal immigrants already here, "without animosity and without amnesty." Still, the president's fuzziness is worrying. He did not mention a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the country in the State of the Union speech, and two of his Cabinet secretaries sidestepped it during recent testimony on Capitol Hill. It may be that their intent was to avoid, for now, inciting the hornets' nest of opponents to eventual citizenship. But without addressing the question frontally and without providing avenues by which the nation's underclass of undocumented workers may one day emerge from the legal shadows, the chances of an effective fix for immigration are nil.

To have a hope of success, both as legislation and as policy, immigration reform must also establish much tougher domestic controls and sanctions for employers; means by which they can verify prospective workers' status; and counterfeit-proof identity documents for workers. There must be a process by which new immigrants can come here legally in sufficient numbers to satisfy the obvious economic demand for them and according to rules that ensure that they will not become a permanent underclass. Time is short. Chances for a reform package will fade as the 2008 presidential campaign approaches. Let's hope that all the players take to heart last year's lessons as this year's debate is joined.

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