A second chance

NUDGED BY A re-energized President Bush, Senate leaders have agreed to resurrect the immigration reform bill yanked from the calendar last week by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). The deal, sweetened by Bush’s agreement to fast-track $4.4 billion for improved border security, is good news -- not because it allows Bush and Reid to rehabilitate themselves but because it revives a vital initiative.

In agreeing to reopen debate on the bill, with senators from each party offering a manageable number of amendments, Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have essentially turned back the clock to a time before Reid recklessly moved to cut off debate, a gambit that backfired. Now as then, however, the legislation must survive amendments that could upset a delicate compromise that would legalize illegal immigrants now living and working in this country, strengthen border security and put more emphasis on skills in admitting both legal immigrants and temporary workers.

Particularly noxious is an amendment expected to be introduced by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) that would needlessly complicate the bill’s legalization provisions. It would require all adults who are in this country illegally to leave the United States within two years of receiving a probationary version of a “Z visa.” They would then have to remain outside the United States until a regular Z visa was issued.

As the bill is now written, only heads of households would have to “touch back” to a foreign country, and only if they wanted to trade their Z visas for a green card and the possibility of U.S. citizenship. Inserting another step in the initial legalization process would defeat the bill’s purpose of expeditiously bringing illegal immigrants out of the shadows. Unfortunately, that advantage of the compromise is viewed as a flaw by opponents. Because it isn’t punitive and disruptive enough, it qualifies as abhorrent “amnesty.”

Unlike Hutchison, his home-state senator, Bush recognizes that comprehensive reform must include both meaningful legalization and better border security. Superficially, there seems to be a contradiction between those objectives, one that opponents of reform gleefully exploit. How, they ask, can disapproval of illegal immigration in the future -- the rationale for better border security -- be reconciled with legalization on any terms for those who crossed the border illegally in the past?


Squaring that circle is not only possible but necessary to enact comprehensive reform. Bush supports legalization of illegal immigrants already here because, as he said in a speech this week, it’s impractical to think “we could just kick them out of the country.” In the same speech, he pointed to progress in securing the border, including the fact that “last year we apprehended and sent home more than about 1.1 million people entering our country illegally.” For political as well as practical reasons, border security in the future must be linked to legalization of those who crossed the border -- yes, illegally -- in the past. That’s why the bill is called a “grand bargain.” Now that it has been given a second chance, the Senate should recognize that it’s a good bargain for America.