Immigration’s endless summer

CAPITOL HILL’S SILLY SEASON -- when Congress is away and news is slow -- will finally end Tuesday. But after a summer filled with no fewer than 20 congressional immigration hearings, blustery news conferences on border enforcement and other election-year artifacts, the immigration reform process is likely to remain silly -- that is, effectively dormant -- until November. Not even marches for immigration reform, scheduled today for Los Angeles and other cities, are likely to change that.

After May’s million-strong marches and passage of a flawed but semi-comprehensive Senate immigration bill, the more strident GOP caucus in the House invented ways to stall reform. First, the House threatened to block the Senate bill altogether. Then, the House leadership scrapped plans to hash out a compromise in conference, opting instead for a series of field hearings showcasing, in the words of Immigration Reform Caucus member Rep. Charlie Norwood (R-Ga.) at a Georgia hearing, “witnesses who agree with me, not disagree with me.”

That wasn’t the only low point. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) chaired a hearing called “Should Mexico Hold Veto Power Over U.S. Border Security Decisions?” even though the Senate provision in question only requires consultation and communication with, not direction from, our southern neighbor. And at last week’s New Hampshire hearing, Peter Gadiel, president of 9/11 Families for a Secure America, performed the common political legerdemain of claiming that illegal immigration somehow led to 9/11, even though all the hijackers entered the country on legally issued visas.

Rather than rein in his party’s rabble-rousers -- or at least gently steer them toward a legislative goal he’s called for repeatedly -- President Bush has been silent on immigration for weeks. Instead, officials from the Department of Homeland Security have been sent around the country to make the case that the administration’s recent border-policing upgrades are already accomplishing the “enforcement-first” agenda required by House hard-liners.


Yet the president also has given hope to the enforcement-centric lobby by courting Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who are pushing a compromise proposal that would put off overhauling the hopelessly bureaucratic visa system and creating a path toward legalizing the estimated 11 million illegal residents in this country until the border is somehow “certified” secure.

Such certainty is probably not possible, and bearing down on just one of immigration’s three crisis-level problems will worsen the other two. And requiring that all illegal immigrants leave the country before reapplying for legal status -- as the PenceHutchinson framework contemplates -- is a recipe for maintaining a permanent underclass of people outside the reach of the law.

If those are the outlines of a future compromise, better the silly season continue than give way to potentially dangerous legislation. Maybe the next Congress will treat a serious problem more seriously.