Fenced in

May 19, 2006

Immigration control advocates and congressional hard-liners have long argued for a militarized border between Mexico and the United States - and lately, for a high, fortified fence to be built along its entire 2,000 miles.

This approach didn't seem to have much traction with the White House or the Senate until this week, when President Bush announced that he would send thousands of National Guard troops to help patrol the border, and the Senate voted to allow construction of a shorter fence, to cover a section in Arizona.

This is hardly the "comprehensive immigration reform" that the White House lobbied for and that Senate supporters vowed to adopt. It seems more like a rush to get conservative lawmakers on board and to appease a frustrated public certain to retaliate at the polls this fall if lawmakers don't act now.

While compromise is necessary, senators should not go too far to accommodate hard-liners who would lock down the border and throw away the keys if they could. The fence idea, like the plan to militarize the border, is more effective symbolically than practically. Immigrants will keep coming illegally as long as there are jobs available but no program for them to work here legally. And despite the presence of the National Guard, they will find a way to get here - just as they have slipped by nearly 12,000 Border Patrol agents.

Although the Senate still must reach agreement on a final immigration bill and then reconcile it with an onerous "enforcement only" measure passed by the House, senators won't have much left to bargain over if they continue to cede to conservatives' demands.

The goal should be a practical bill, not a cobbled-together, unworkable piece of legislation designed mostly to meet political demands. If the law ultimately approved does not fully address current flaws in the U.S. immigration system, create a guest-worker program to accommodate labor needs and establish practical border security measures, Congress will find itself addressing these issues again not far in the future.

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