Bush, Congress can agree on immigration reform this year

Published 2:33 pm Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Even as they battle over Iraq and assorted scandals large and small, Republicans and Democrats owe it to themselves and the country to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill this year.

Republicans ought to be chastened by the losses they suffered in 2006 after adopting a harsh anti-immigrant stance and strive to get past the issue before it rips their party apart in 2008.

Democrats ought to want to demonstrate that a Congress they dominate can solve at least one big national problem. And — short-term, at least — they’d probably benefit politically among Latino voters by passing a bill.

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But the basic reason for action is that everyone agrees the immigration system is in shambles, with illegal immigrants continuing to pile across the border, with employers not able to get the legal workers they need, and with 12 million illegal immigrants living in fear of deportation and subject to exploitation.

Most everyone also agrees with Microsoft CEO Bill Gates that the United States needs to allow in more skilled workers — indeed, it should be giving out green cards along with diplomas to foreign-born Ph.D.s — and everyone ought to agree that states and localities deserve federal help in coping with the burden of illegal immigration.

This is a big, big problem that Congress and the White House would do credit to themselves to resolve — and deserve public scorn if they cannot. It’s a test of whether our current crop of politicians can get anything done.

Fortunately, a lot of behind-the-scenes action is under way in the Senate to get started on comprehensive immigration reform, but it remains to be seen whether a deal can really be cut by this summer, after which 2008 politics may make it impossible.

On one side, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has dropped his attempt to draft a new, solves-every-problem bill with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and has decided to reintroduce last year’s Senate Judiciary Committee compromise measure as a starting point for debate.

He was moved to do so, aides and immigration experts say, both by the difficulty of reaching a deal with McCain on legal and wage protections for temporary workers and by a massive March 6 raid at a leather-goods factory in New Bedford, Mass., that rounded up 350 terrified workers and led to charges against their employer.

The raid, in which dozens of women were detained and unable to care for their children, caused Kennedy to decide that action on immigration reform couldn’t wait. But that raid, along with other high-profile roundups by the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, also could convince wary Republicans that the executive branch finally is serious about border enforcement and employer sanctions.

On the other side, as President Bush revealed on his trip to Latin America this week, his administration is working intensively to produce a “coherent Republican position” in the Senate to take into negotiations with Kennedy.

Administration officials — with Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff in the lead — are hoping to increase GOP support for comprehensive immigration reform from the 20 senators currently serving who supported last year’s bill to 25, a majority of GOP senators.

They also are trying to convince some hardliners to drop unworkable ideas such as requiring millions to return to their home countries before they can gain legal status. Pro-immigration lobbyists say there is a chance that up to 47 Democrats could combine with 20-plus Republicans to send a comprehensive bill to the House with a tailwind of nearly 70 votes.

But they say the danger is that, to win support from 25 Republicans, the administration may agree to restrictive provisions — such as a ban on temporary workers ever becoming citizens — that will drive away Democrats, causing the whole effort to collapse.

On the other side, administration officials are worried that Democrats will demand such a high level of worker protections-such as guarantees of prevailing union wage rates – as to drive away business and GOP support. The outlines of the basic deal are clear: truly tough border enforcement, using fences, personnel and technology; tough penalties for employers who hire illegals; and tamper-proof identification cards to identify legal workers.

The legislation also should include a temporary worker program that fills a yawning need for agricultural and low-skilled service workers, with options for such workers to become permanent residents and citizens. It should include vastly increased special visas for skilled workers and swift opportunities for citizenship for the most highly skilled. Also, there should be federal impact aid for communities whose schools and hospitals are burdened by illegal immigration and an earned legalization program for the 12 million people who now are here illegally, provided they pay fines and back taxes, have clean records and learn English.

Members of Congress should heed the urging of Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, who said at the National Press Club last month that it is time “to end the rhetoric, stop the politics, provide sustained funding and turn away from extreme, unworkable solutions that solve nothing and only delay the benefits of real reform.”

It’s worth noting that Napolitano, a Democrat and an advocate of tough enforcement and earned legalization, won re-election with 63 percent of the vote last year against an opponent who said she was “soft” illegal immigrants.