How Congress botched immigration reform
Many in the media, including my Post colleagues Eugene Robinson, Richard Cohen and Michael Gerson have written powerful and appropriate columns decrying the action of the Arizona legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer in passing and signing a punitive law aimed at illegal immigrants.
If the law goes into effect despite promised constitutional challenges, local police in Arizona will be able to stop people they suspect may not belong in this country and require them to produce papers attesting that they are legal citizens. Jail terms for trespassing await anyone without the documentation.
The law is every bit as bad as others have said -- but it is hardly a surprise. What has been missing from the discussion is any apparent recognition of those responsible for killing the last effort at comprehensive federal immigration reform that would have headed off the need for this kind of punitive state action.
It was only three years ago that the action was stymied by a Senate filibuster and the impatience of Majority Leader Harry Reid to move on to other topics. At the time, Sen. Edward Kennedy, then as always trying to fix the broken system, asked what opponents of the comprehensive legislation that died that June were in favor of.
"What are they going to do with the 12 million who are undocumented here?" Kennedy demanded to know. "Send them back to countries around the world? Develop a type of Gestapo here to seek out these people that are in the shadows? What's their alternative?"
Now we know. If it's not exactly "Gestapo" tactics, the Arizona legislation certainly smacks of police-state methods that inevitably will involve racial profiling of Hispanics, no matter what preventive measures the governor says she will take.
The bill that died in Congress had been hammered out over many months by a bipartisan group of senators, including both the Hispanic members of the Senate and both the Republican senators from Arizona.
But once the bill hit the floor, it was attacked from both flanks. The most conservative Republicans -- Jim DeMint of South Carolina, David Vitter of Louisiana and Jeff Sessions of Alabama -- led the assault. They were joined by some civil libertarians and allies of organized labor who were dissatisfied with the bill's protections for guest workers. Democrat Byron Dorgan of North Dakota repeatedly tried to gut the guest-worker program before finally succeeding by one vote on his third effort.
With Reid showing increasing impatience over a debate that began on May 21, the Senate conducted three cloture votes on June 7 and each time came up short. Carrying out his threat, Reid pulled the bill off the floor, while Minority Leader Mitch McConnell protested. "I think we're giving up on this bill too soon," McConnell said. "There are a number of Republicans who are prepared to vote for cloture as soon as they believe their colleagues on this side of the aisle have had a reasonable opportunity to have offered and voted upon amendments they think would improve the bill."
The next week, President George W. Bush journeyed to Capitol Hill and pleaded with Senate Republicans to renew the effort. More bipartisan talks ensued and the result was a second bill, this one adding a mandatory $4 billion border security section to the previous provisions centered on tougher enforcement, plus a path to citizenship for the illegal immigrants already living here.
But when it came to the floor, cloture again failed, this time by 46 to 53 -- 14 votes short of the 60 it needed. Democrats split 33 to 15 in favor of ending the debate while Republicans voted 37 to 12 to continue talking and amending, and the two independent members split.
That ended the last effort by Congress to meet the federal responsibility for managing immigration. The states -- not just Arizona but all of them -- are ill-equipped to solve the problem.
The blame for this mess rests with those who killed that bill.