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Borderline leadership

PRESIDENT BUSH HAS been talking for five years, somewhat halfheartedly, about the need to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. The clock is running out. The president needs to make the issue a priority now or the opportunity will have been lost and the former border governor will have failed to resolve the nation’s unhealthy immigration policy. The current system combines a failure to control the borders with an insistence on treating needed immigrant workers as criminals.

The good news is that some people in Washington do see this as an urgent matter -- the president’s own Homeland Security secretary, Michael Chertoff, asserted earlier this month that Bush’s guest-worker proposal was not merely about economics but national security. He realizes that an illegal underground population of 10 million people is intolerable on both grounds.

The case of four Phoenix-area honors students detained by immigration agents at Niagara Falls offered a different perspective on the same dysfunctional status quo. These students traveled to Buffalo in 2002 to compete in a high school science competition. Because of their Latino appearance, immigration agents approached them and demanded to know their status. It was determined that the students had come to the United States illegally -- when they were between 2 and 7 years old. Last Thursday, a judge took the sensible step of blocking their deportation.

The students’ stories are compelling, yet so are those of hundreds of migrants who die each year crossing the desert in search of work. Hardly anyone in Washington would disagree that the nation needs far more foreign workers than current quotas allow. Two competing Senate bills introduced recently -- one by John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); the other by John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) -- would expand temporary-worker programs and are scheduled to be considered Tuesday at a Judiciary Committee hearing.

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As senators consider these proposals, their priority should be to tailor the law to economic reality and to ensure that the law be realistic and enforceable. This means focusing on the numbers of foreign workers needed, addressing the current population of undocumented workers and making it harder to be hired illegally after legal opportunities have been expanded. Simply militarizing the border is not a solution -- as a study from the conservative Cato Institute makes clear. It argued that tougher border policing in recent years had encouraged illegal immigrants to stay in this country longer than they otherwise would have. But the political imperative of avoiding even the appearance of a blanket amnesty can also lead to some unworkable ideas. The Cornyn-Kyl bill, for instance, would require the more than 10 million undocumented workers in this country to turn themselves in for deportation to their countries of origin before being allowed to apply for a new guest-worker program. That proposal might have sounded just dandy in some conference room on Capitol Hill, but it isn’t going to happen.

We welcome these hearings, but we are under no illusions that the attention will be sustained: The committee will soon shift gears to focus on the confirmation process for Bush’s Supreme Court nominee, and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has said he doesn’t consider immigration reform to be on the front burner. Hence the need for some White House leadership on the issue.


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