Off the fence

NEW MEXICO Gov. Bill Richardson, the California-born son of a Mexican mother, traveled to Washington on Thursday to declare his interest in two of the most elusive goals in American politics: comprehensive immigration reform and the presidency. The second may be more realistic than the first.

"I come here as a border state governor and a Hispanic American who knows that our nation can no longer afford to ignore the issue of illegal immigration," Richardson told a Georgetown University audience. "We need to stop exploiting the immigration problem and start solving it. We need to pass realistic laws and then enforce them rigorously."

Richardson's thoughtful speech was both a rebuke to Republican immigrant bashers and a challenge to Capitol Hill Democrats. But few will likely read beyond this line: "Securing the border must come first -- but we must understand that building a fence will not in any way accomplish that objective."

That language may be on the absolutist side, but the New Mexico governor is absolutely right to point out that a multibillion-dollar border wall, on its own, is no "reform" at all. It would merely shift the strain on the system elsewhere and fail to address the 45% of illegal immigrants who enter legally but overstay their visas.

For this, Richardson was given the usual treatment -- surrealistic bashing from CNN's millionaire working-class hero, Lou Dobbs. Dobbs' website asked readers: "Do you believe, as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson suggests, that efforts to secure our borders and ports are nothing more than demagoguery?"

In fact, Richardson has unusual credibility on the issue.

It wasn't long ago that restrictionists were singing his praises for declaring a state of emergency along the border and calling in his state's National Guard to patrol it. He would double the number of Border Patrol agents, mandate a tamper-proof employment card and make any "path to citizenship" expensive in time, money and effort. Yet Richardson would also more than double the number of annual work and family visas, and he has introduced driver's licenses for illegals in New Mexico.

Certainly the governor isn't right about every one of his proposals, and how his speech will affect his presidential aspirations remains to be seen. But he couldn't be more timely in reminding his party that comprehensive immigration reform is no less urgent now that Democrats control Congress.

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