The Immigration Dodge

SOME ISSUES ARE TOO IMPORTANT to address on the eve of an election. That is essentially the message Congress is sending to voters by refusing to take up immigration reform before heading home next month for a campaign-season recess. Republican leaders appear reluctant to reconcile conflicting House and Senate immigration bills passed within the last year.

Such inaction amounts to gross negligence. Prodded in part by huge demonstrations in Los Angeles and elsewhere, the nation was transfixed earlier this year by the issue of illegal immigration. The U.S. economy's reliance on millions of undocumented foreign workers is a stain on this nation's respect for democracy and the rule of law. The effort to create a legal avenue for immigrant workers to fill essential jobs is an urgent task that should have been undertaken years ago.

That's what President Bush has been saying since his first year in office, and it's an indictment of his leadership that his party's own congressional leaders, after holding their idiotic "how evil are these illegals" hearings this summer, once again feel free to disregard the White House's pleas. More interesting, however, is what the House-Senate split says about a looming schism within the Republican Party.

The Senate, after all, passed a somewhat sensible bill that would toughen border policing and workplace verification of legal residency, while expanding guest-worker programs to match willing immigrant workers with jobs that would otherwise go unfilled. The Senate's proposal also would make it possible for many of those already here illegally to obtain legal residency. Although far from ideal, this bill, favored by corporate Republican interests who view the debate mainly as a workforce issue, was rooted in reality and had its priorities straight. The House bill, supposedly championing security, did not address the underlying economic issues, merely opting to treat illegal immigration as a law enforcement matter.

The immigration issue also creates some tension for Democrats, particularly among interests for labor, Latinos and African Americans. But congressional inaction is a result of the split within the Republican Party between big business and cultural conservatives. That is one reason the issue will likely be tabled until after the election. Another is that party leaders want to spend every spare moment from now until November taking on Democrats, not fellow Republicans.

Such is the state and tenor of the debate that this postponement may actually be good news. Given the extent to which conservative House Republicans eager to demagogue the issue had taken control of the immigration debate, it's probably best that House and Senate members won't be trying to reach a compromise before the election. Worthwhile reform stands a better chance during Congress' lame-duck session after the election, when members (presumably) are concerned less with narrow political interests than with the national interest.

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