You can usually tell what particular issues a politician feels deeply about by the fact that he or she is willing to risk political capital on them. For President Bush, one such issue is immigration reform, and in January he proposed a plan to fix a system which, he observed, "is not working."

The idea was to create a temporary worker program that would enable the federal government to begin to address the paradox of immigration today: illegal immigrants -- undeniable contributors to society but ineligible to be recipients of its full promise -- living in a shadowy domain that poses a security threat.

The proposal offered a rational approach to balance economic and security concerns. But as the electoral year went on, Bush's advisers concluded he had no political capital to spare. The proposal had been criticized from the left as being too harsh and from the right as too generous, and the potential gains in Latino votes just did not seem to outweigh the potential losses from Bush's Republican base. For the second time in four years, immigration reform went on the back burner.

State and local officials who bear the brunt of Washington's inaction and do not have the luxury of sitting out immigration's challenges are filling the vacuum. But people in Washington who are obsessed with security or inspired by anti-immigrant sentiment threaten their efforts. The result is an even more fragmented and dysfunctional system in urgent need of real leadership at the federal level.

State and local officials are stuck "trying to manage the impact of migration," as California Assemblyman Marco Firebaugh put it. Most illegal immigrants work more than 40 hours a week and pay taxes, yet they receive no benefits. That means that when they or someone in their family gets sick, it is up to local authorities to provide them with health care -- too often the expensive health care of the emergency room.

Local officials also patch together solutions in education, policing and documentation. With no federal form of identification, nearly 1,200 police departments and 340 city governments have turned to IDs known as "matriculas consulares." Issued first by Mexico and now by some other Latin American countries to their nationals living here, the matriculas have become legitimate forms of identification as agencies and governments have realized that in order to know who lives in their communities, a foreign document is better than none.

Interestingly, President Vicente Fox last week had his second meeting with a group of nearly 40 legislators, mayors and city council members from 15 states. They are Fox's latest allies for bringing some semblance of order and dignity to the lives of immigrants. Fox and Bush sought just that in 2001, but the Sept. 11 attacks left Fox hanging from the paintbrush, as the Spanish expression goes, when the Bush administration took away the ladder.

The hard work at state and local levels is being undermined by single-minded interests at the federal level. What's more, those federal initiatives lack the kind of balance that comes when the top leader of the land seeks an overall compromise.

In a couple of weeks, for instance, the Bush administration is expected to issue federal rules that would require medical workers to ask patients about their immigration status. The purported intent is to better understand who receives health care and how much it costs. While the result may not exactly mean asking "docs to become cops," as Angela Kelley of the National Immigration Forum predicts, it could dissuade immigrants from seeking professional care early.

Similarly, legislators in Washington, through proposals such as the one known as the Clear Act, would enlist police officers as immigration agents. Police departments around the country reject the idea out of concern that immigrants would think twice about reporting crimes.

Perhaps nothing is more painfully illustrative of today's disconnect between Washington and the rest of the nation on immigration than higher education. According to the National Immigration Law Center, eight states, including the four with the largest concentrations of immigrants, allow exemplary yet undocumented high school graduates to pay in-state tuition to go to college.

The day they graduate, however, the grads will enter the job market as illegal immigrants. Only the federal government can change that, but a bipartisan proposal intended to allow these graduates to enter the work force legally has been awaiting a vote for more than 26 months. So the so-called Dream Act remains just that.

desdewash@washpost.com