CONGRESS walked away from immigration reform in its final days. It was a tough issue, and there were powerful forces at both ends of the political spectrum that refused to compromise. After a few hours of debate, most of it in the middle of the night, House leaders decided that they did not want to devote the necessary time to deal with amendments and discussion, and the bill was taken down. The conventional wisdom is that a serious immigration reform bill will not be considered again for another five years. Why should that be?

There is a consensus in the country that we have lost control of our borders. It is estimated that there are as many as 10 million illegal aliens here already, and the flow from economically troubled areas of the world continues. Some employers profit from this influx of cheap labor; some ethnic political groups are happy to build their constituencies. They want amnesty for those undocumented immigrants who are already here, but they don't want sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegals.

In August, by a vote 80 to 19, the Senate passed the Simpson-Mazzoli bill containing provisions for both amnesty and sanctions. The House Judiciary Committee reported the bill, and it was expected that a large majority of House members would have supported it had they had an opportunity to vote. But agreement on both elements of the compromise was essential. In urging his colleagues to support the bill, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) put it in practical terms: "It may no longer be the case that love and marriage go together, but amnesty and sanctions sure do."

Opponents of sanctions may have succeeded in sidetracking the bill this month, but they are playing a risky game. They have left 10 million illegal aliens in limbo by not acting on a bill with generous amnesty provisions. If the American economy does not improve quickly, and if unemployment continues to rise, it is possible that public sentiment will turn against the undocumented aliens who are working in this country and that support for amnesty will diminish. By offering no reasonable alternative to employer sanctions--massive economic assistance to all countries from which the illegals are coming is not a practical and immediate answer -- they leave themselves open to a charge that they affirmatively favor unlimited, uncontrolled and illegal immigration. There is little support for this position in Congress or in the country.

The Simpson-Mazzoli bill remains a good compromise, devised by thoughtful legislators, supported by the administration and the broad center of experts and policy-makers. It was not defeated last weekend, just delayed. It belongs high on the list of matters to be considered by the new Congress and deserves the support of all but those who, for their own reasons, prefer the chaotic status quo.