A lost opportunity

April 10, 2006

Americans have been engaged in a cacophonous national debate these last two weeks over the pressing question of what to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country and the 3 million more who attempt to come here each year.

All eyes were on Washington last week as lawmakers grappled with competing legislative proposals that many hoped would finally address that question and put the government on course to reforming the nation's troubled immigration system. But on Friday, Senate leaders failed to reach agreement on a compromise measure that would create a guest-worker program that President Bush has repeatedly called for, permit 325,000 foreigners to work here temporarily each year and allow millions of illegal immigrants already in this country to gain legal residency.

The program would allow the U.S. to regulate the flow of migrants and track when they enter and leave the country, thus meeting security concerns. It would also provide labor protections that would benefit immigrant and American workers, and enhance enforcement of immigration laws in the workplace.

Senators disagreed over several proposed amendments that Democrats said would eviscerate the legislation and Republicans who supported the amendments insisted would strengthen it.

They then headed home for a two-week Easter recess, once again having raised, then dashed, public expectations and failing to seize an opportunity at a time when Americans are clamoring for elected officials to act.

The Senate legislation would have to have been reconciled with a measure passed by the House that toughens immigration laws and has no provisions for legalizing illegal immigrants already here. Still, passage of the Senate measure would have been a significant step forward, possibly ushering in the first wide-scale legalization of illegal immigrants since a 1986 amnesty law granted legal status to nearly 3 million undocumented immigrants.

Lawmakers should promptly deal with this issue when they return, or voters will undoubtedly register their displeasure over the political foot-dragging next November.

Congress should be capable of crafting a law that meets both the nation's security concerns and its labor demands. Denying legalization to millions of undocumented immigrants living and working here - or worse, attempting to deport them - and erecting fences and massing agents at the U.S.-Mexico border are costly and ineffective "solutions" to a complex problem. The nation deserves better.

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