Now the work begins

May 30, 2006

The bipartisan immigration bill approved in the Senate last week will strengthen border security, create a guest-worker program allowing 200,000 immigrants a year to work legally in the U.S., and establish a path for most of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living here to gain legal resident status and - eventually - citizenship. It addresses the concerns of proponents of border security and supporters of liberalized immigration.

Passage of the proposal, which hews closely to measures sought by the White House, marks the beginning of what is sure to be a long and contentious process. The challenge will be integrating this hugely ambitious legislation with a far more restrictive so-called enforcement-only proposal in the House. That measure forgoes a guest-worker program and instead targets illegal immigrants by reclassifying them as felons and sanctioning tough criminal penalties against them.

Though both sides claim the support of public opinion, they should be mindful that whether Americans want more border enforcement and less immigration, or improved border security along with more liberal immigration, they want the current immigration system changed above all. They are losing patience with Congress, and unless lawmakers come together and pass a comprehensive immigration reform law, Americans will voice their impatience at the polls this fall.

Anti-immigrant sentiments are on the rise. Migrant deaths at the U.S.-Mexico border are persistent. Industries that rely on immigrant labor are desperate for workers. And with half a million migrants crossing illegally into the U.S. from Mexico each year, border security remains ineffective.

Though the Senate measure is complex and will be expensive to implement, it is still a sensible alternative to the status quo and more practical than the House proposal. Hard-liners in the House have promised a tough fight and vow to resist the plan to legalize illegal immigrants. They seem to overlook that spending on fences, border control agents and high-tech equipment has skyrocketed in the last decade, but has not abated illegal crossings from Mexico.

Congress has a historic opportunity to bridge political differences and adopt legislation that combines practical solutions to the immigration problem with long-held American values. We can control immigration and protect our borders and still remain a welcoming nation of immigrants. Congress can prove this by adopting the Senate measure.

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