Frist, do no harm


ON WEDNESDAY, AFTER MONTHS of work, the Senate brought the immigration reform debate to the floor. Unfortunately, senators took up the wrong bill.

Balancing enforcement measures with a temporary-worker program, the Judiciary Committee approved a sensible, comprehensive measure in time to meet the Monday deadline set by Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn). But instead of bringing the committee bill to the floor as promised, Frist opted to bring his own enforcement-heavy bill forward first for a daylong debate.

This is a needless distraction. The Senate should focus on the committee’s compromise.

Frist introduced his Securing America’s Borders Act about two weeks ago. Unlike the committee’s more thorough approach, and contrary to President Bush’s wishes, it has no guest-worker program. It resembles the bill the House passed in December when it comes to controversial measures such as criminalizing illegal immigrants and those who aid them.


But the content of Frist’s proposal may be secondary to its role in his nascent presidential run. We hope that the majority leader doesn’t really believe his alternative is sound, and that this is mere posturing so he can pander to the far right by saying he was extra harsh on immigration until — gasp — other senators insisted on a guest-worker program and “soft” enforcement measures.

The more promising legislation, shepherded by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) out of his Judiciary Committee, relies largely on the May 2005 bill introduced by Sens. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.). That bill provided the framework for a guest-worker program for immigrants already in the country and for those who would seek to immigrate in the future. Immigrants currently in the country would have to pay back taxes and fines, study English and fulfill other requirements to become eligible for citizenship — a far cry from amnesty.

The Specter compromise added a program for 1.5 million agricultural workers, toughened the requirements for citizenship, provided more visas for nurses, doctors and asylum candidates and bulked up border security.

The Senate should swat aside the majority leader’s cynical alternative and unite behind this compromise. Then senators will have to stand firm in negotiations with the House to ensure that any final legislation bears a relationship to the real world.