Deal making

August 19, 2005

CONGRESSIONAL lawmakers unsuccessful in crafting legislation on immigration reform since the 9/11 attacks may try to reach consensus when they return from their August recess. This would be a good time for President Bush, who is working behind the scenes to broker a deal, to publicly encourage lawmakers stymied by emotions and politics to get behind a plan.

Mr. Bush wants to avoid alienating conservative Republicans calling for stricter limitations on immigration and at the same time to prevent his party from being viewed as anti-immigrant. But immigration reform is one of the signature issues of his presidency and he should openly support legislation encompassing his past calls for better border control, a guest-worker program and a path to legalization for some of the millions of undocumented but otherwise law-abiding and hard-working immigrants living here.

Although he has since backed off legalization, Mr. Bush and others on Capitol Hill - including opponents of legalization - readily acknowledge that undocumented immigrant workers are essential to the nation's economy. By backing legalization, Mr. Bush would gain support from Democrats in Congress who correctly believe undocumented immigrants with long-held jobs, American-born children and other ties to this country should be given the chance to become legal residents.

Legislation proposed by Sens. Edward Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat, and John McCain, the Arizona Republican, includes legalization and hews closely to ideas advocated by Mr. Bush. A competing bill sponsored by Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and John Kyl of Arizona has tougher border security measures and would require undocumented immigrants to return to their home country to apply for employment in the U.S., an unrealistic and unworkable proposition.

That Arizona senators sponsored both bills is not surprising. The state has been inundated with illegal border crossings from neighboring Mexico and is now the epicenter of the national debate over illegal immigration. Arizona residents have voted to deny illegal immigrants social services and have organized citizen patrols of the border to prevent more migrants from entering.

Just this week, Arizona's governor and the governor of New Mexico declared states of emergency because of serious spikes in violence and smuggling along their borders. The declarations, which free up state and federal dollars for extra law enforcement personnel and border surveillance equipment, are embarrassing reminders of congressional inaction and the lack of U.S. border security.

Both Senate bills address the frustrations of residents in border states. The Kennedy-McCain proposal, though more thoughtful and practical, might gain support with more border-security measures added to it. The Cornyn-Kyl bill could do better with less punitive actions. President Bush should work with Congress to reach a workable middle ground.

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