Breakthrough on Immigration

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Friday, May 18, 2007

THE BIPARTISAN deal on immigration announced in the Senate yesterday is a breakthrough: It probably represents the best hope in decades to fix this country's non-functioning immigration system. Most important, it would allow millions of illegal immigrants already here to put themselves on the right side of the law and on a path toward eventual permanent residence. But like most rough drafts, this one needs work. It's critical that in addressing one set of immigration problems, the legislation doesn't create a new set.

Crafted with critical guidance from the Bush administration, the 380-page bill includes much to cheer about, not least the ideological range of its sponsors, from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.). But their alliance also highlights the bill's central political trade-off -- legalization for 12 million immigrants already here in return for second-class status for hundreds of thousands of future low-skilled workers the U.S. economy needs each year.

Among the bill's most constructive elements are provisions that would provide legal protection for hundreds of thousands of migrant agricultural workers; a fast track to permanent residence for immigrant college students and members of the military who entered the country as children; tighter border security; and a system for employers to verify that job applicants are here legally -- with penalties for employers who fail to do so.

The bill recognizes that many of the 12 million illegal immigrants here, whose labor is critical to the economy, are here to stay and must be treated decently and realistically. They will have a path to permanent residence, but not one that can be disparaged as "amnesty." In addition to establishing law-abiding records and good employment histories, they will have to wait eight years before applying for permanent resident status, pay $5,000 in fines (less than the White House proposed) and, in the case of heads of households, leave the country and reenter legally. That last provision -- a sop to the anti-immigrant crowd -- is absurd and mean-spirited; it would be a burden for many hard-working immigrants.

The bill also would provide relief for an estimated 4 million or more foreign relatives of U.S. residents and citizens who, having applied for visas to be reunited with their families before spring 2005, now face waits of up to 22 years. Under the bill, an additional 240,000 green cards would be granted annually to clear the backlog within eight years. But future visa rules would favor highly educated and job-qualified applicants over many categories of relatives, such as adult siblings and grown children. In a globalized economy, that may make sense, but it will exact a real human cost.

The bill's most troubling aspect is its treatment of the future annual flow of 400,000 to 600,000 low-skilled workers needed to satisfy the demand for labor. They would have to leave every two years and stay out of the country for a year, for a maximum of six years' work here -- a system that invites rule-breaking by workers and employers and raises the specter of a future class of illegal immigrants. That is precisely the problem this bill was intended to solve.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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