The 'Grand Bargain': Round II
Upfront cash and an eye on the big picture may grease the skids for immigration reform.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

GIVE CREDIT to the advocates of broad immigration reform and to President Bush for helping to revive what looked like moribund legislation in the Senate. Now comes the hard work of securing approval in both houses of Congress for a bill so sweeping that it contains something for everyone to dislike.

Backers in the administration and the Senate are repackaging the bill as a law enforcement measure, amending it to provide $4.4 billion in guaranteed, upfront funding for tighter border security, expanded detention facilities and a crackdown on employers who hire illegal workers. That may be a shrewd way to win over some skeptical Republican senators who were instrumental in shelving the bill just over a week ago, and it's a justified move toward making the nation's border less porous.

At the same time, keeping the bill's broader purpose in mind is critical. Trying to seal the border without recognizing the reality that the U.S. economy relies on immigrant labor is a recipe for failure. Immigrants account for one-seventh of the American workforce; undocumented ones represent about 5 percent of all employees nationally. A large majority of workers who entered the country illegally or who overstayed their visas did so not only for the chance of living better lives and supporting loved ones at home but because the great engine of this country's commerce and industry needs them to do jobs that are shunned by most native-born Americans, whose education levels have risen steadily. The idea apparently cherished by anti-immigrant hard-liners -- that undocumented workers can be deported, hounded and policed into invisibility -- is a pipe dream.

On top of the economic facts, there are political ones. Just as everyone loathes some facet of the immigration bill, practically everyone wants something from it, too. Advocates of security-first, who want a border crackdown and an employee verification system before addressing existing and future immigrants, may be correct that many reformers care more about legalization for the nation's 12 million undocumented aliens. But the legalization-first crowd is right that the problem of undocumented immigrants will only mushroom, regardless of new fencing and agents at the border; after all, 40 percent of illegal immigrants enter the country on a valid visa. The immigration bill's "grand bargain" builds on those twin realities -- the need to secure the borders and to accommodate immigrant workers drawn by the American job market.

If the Senate bill can overcome the barrage of procedural obstacles still certain to impede its progress, it may emerge with any number of toxic features, which this page will identify and oppose. Ditto whatever bill may be taken up by the House. With luck the worst bits can be redacted or defanged in House-Senate negotiations. But the big-picture goals of border security, employment verification, and legalization for existing and future immigrants remain worth the fight, if only because they promise an improvement on an intolerable status quo.

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