THE DEMISE of the Senate immigration reform bill Thursday was a grim reminder of how much easier it is to block legislation on controversial issues than to pass it. Although the provisions were worked out by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, and President Bush had made it a top priority, in the end neither he nor Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could persuade even a simple majority of the Senate to keep the bill alive.
Whatever leadership the two men provided wasn't enough to overcome the opposition's two main messages: Putting illegal immigrants already in the United States on a path to citizenship would forgive them for violating U.S. law (the "amnesty" argument), and providing more opportunities for workers to enter legally would take jobs away from American citizens (the "cheap labor" argument). The former resonated largely with conservatives, the latter with liberals. Those criticisms are sure to confront any comprehensive approach to immigration reform, and it's past time for proponents to find an effective retort.
As supporters of the Senate measure correctly argued, the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States cannot be forced to move out. Requiring them to return to their home countries and go to the end of the visa line would simply persuade them to stay in the shadows they inhabit today. A much better way to bring them out of the shadows is to provide a clear path to citizenship — not a free one, but one that rewards work and compliance with the law.
Nor would banning temporary workers or decreasing the number of legal immigrants shield citizens from low-wage competition. In a globalized marketplace, there's almost no way to escape it. And as long as countries to the south and west struggle economically, many of their residents will do whatever it takes to find work here.
Both parties' leadership failed in the Senate this week, yet Republicans may pay a higher price. A new USA Today/Gallup poll showed Latinos gravitating to the Democratic Party, just as they abandoned the Republican Party in California after then-Gov. Pete Wilson pushed a mean-spirited, anti-immigrant agenda. Conservatives should ponder that history before they play the "amnesty" card again.