Making sense of immigration

THERE ARE TWO SCHOOLS of thought in Washington on immigration reform. The negative one bemoans the fact that, after George Bush pushed the issue early on in his presidency, populist scare-politics have hijacked the effort, as evidenced by the absurd bill passed in the House of Representatives in December.

The more positive one marvels at the fact that despite this misdirection, there still appears a sliver of a chance for sensible legislation that would address the nation's need for immigrant workers without turning them into criminals.

Reason is still trying to prevail in the Senate, where a compromise bill by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) may be considered this week. The Specter proposal, which is still being fleshed out, incorporates much of the White House's thinking on the issue, as well as features from legislation by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). But it faces long odds, especially in light of the split within the Republican Party on immigration.

The party's own Senate majority leader, Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), is fighting the White House, threatening to advance alternative legislation that apes the House's nonsensical bill, which is all about enforcing border security without adopting any type of guest-worker program. The subtext here is that Frist, as he did in the Terri Schiavo tragedy, is pandering to the far right in preparation for his 2008 presidential bid, though conservative Republicans should know better than to try outlawing the supply of labor while ignoring the demand for it.

The Specter compromise is a practical, fair and sensible approach to immigration, making it very different from the reflexive xenophobia we've come to expect from this session of Congress. It focuses both on tightening border security and creating a program that allows the millions of people already in the country illegally to obtain guest-worker permits.

The bill does not give a free pass to illegal immigrants. Employers would have to demonstrate that U.S. workers wouldn't take the position offered to the guest worker. Once the visa has expired, probably after six years, the workers could apply for U.S. citizenship, but their applications would be processed after those of legal immigrants waiting in line, and they would have to pay hefty fines. Thus, contrary to the accusations of opponents, the law would by no means reward people who came to this country illegally, nor is it unfair to those who played by the rules.

Immigration is among the thorniest of issues for Republicans, with their business-oriented base heavily in favor of a guest-worker program and their social conservative base wanting to build a wall across the border and kick the illegals out. The split is complicated by President Bush's weakness, upcoming congressional elections and the 2008 presidential race.

But the Senate as an institution has an opportunity, and an obligation, to rise above Washington's preelection silly season and pass immigration legislation that reflects the country's real needs, not its baser instincts.

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World