Getting to No

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

HAVING DERAILED immigration reform favored by a clear majority of Americans, the Senate may want to consider the effects of its resolute inaction.

Proponents say that they have not given up. But assume, for a moment, that efforts to repair the nation's broken immigration system will not be revived for at least two years. Given current trends, that means 800,000 to 1 million additional immigrants will enter the country illegally or overstay their visas, drawn by the great magnet of the American economy to fill jobs that most Americans won't do. That will swell the number of undocumented aliens, now estimated at 12 million, to nearly 13 million. Between 800 and 1,000 other people, mostly Mexicans and Central Americans, are likely to die trying to enter the country in the absence of the legal channels for immigration that the Senate bill would have established.

That tragedy will be compounded by another: the anguish of several million American citizens and legal permanent residents whose fervent hope to be reunited with their relatives will continue to be frustrated by a years-long backlog in visa applications. The Senate bill would have shrunk the backlog and eased the pain for some of those families, who now wait a minimum of five to seven years for their family members to be issued U.S. visas.

Meanwhile, border security will continue to be laughably inadequate. The Senate bill would have added thousands of border patrol agents and several hundred miles of fencing, but that, too, is dead for the time being. Elsewhere, immigrants who entered the country as young children, including college students and members of the armed forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan, will get no fast track to permanent resident status as the Senate bill would have provided. And employers in factories, farms and service industries will continue to roll the dice whenever they hire foreign-born workers, unable to easily verify their legal status or be certain that the workers will not be arrested and deported by federal officials.

In towns, cities and states, politics will become increasingly poisoned by venomous debates over how to deal with immigrants, given the federal government's failure to act. Under pressure from constituents, state and local officials will increasingly be at each other's throats over measures to restrict how, where, when and under what circumstances immigrants can gather, live, study, drive and work. Already overburdened state and local police forces will be enlisted in the effort, diverting them from more serious crime problems.

Let's not forget the likely political fallout of the Senate's failure as voters assess a Republican Party whose elected officials have too often demonstrated hostility to Hispanics, among the fastest-growing segments of the electorate, as well as the Democrats' failure to parlay their control of both houses of Congress into resolving a festering domestic problem.

There's plenty of blame to go around. Blame George W. Bush, a president whose self-inflicted wounds have left him too politically incapacitated to deliver his own party. Blame Republicans like Jim DeMint of South Carolina, John Cornyn of Texas and Jeff Sessions of Alabama, senators more focused on generating sound bites and 30-second attack ads than on solving the nation's immigration problems. And blame Democratic senators such as James Webb of Virginia, who ducked the hard vote while hiding behind a phony compromise proposal that had no chance. Although it was Republican senators who bear primary responsibility for killing off immigration reform, all of them conspired to reinforce and justify the public's disdain for politics as usual. They abdicated their responsibility to deal with one of the nation's knottiest problems and perpetuated a system rife with injustice, illogic and inhumanity. Having been offered the best chance in a generation to make a fix on immigration, the Senate blew it.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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