Last, best chance

April 11, 2007

President Bush has offered his opening bid in a new round of negotiations to produce comprehensive immigration reform, and it's not very tempting.

In order to win the support of conservative Republicans, Mr. Bush appears to be trending right. His aides are floating proposals to stiffen penalties for undocumented workers seeking citizenship, to require all of them to make at least a brief return to their country of origin and to set up a two-tier system for green cards that favors skilled workers over the relatives of U.S. citizens.

And yet those who would like to stem the human tide over the U.S.-Mexican border while also bringing the 12 million workers already here out of the shadows have reason for optimism at the president's approach. He seems sincerely committed to bringing about a practical and compassionate reform package while remaining flexible enough on details to keep his negotiating options open.

"It's important for people not to give up, no matter how hard it looks," Mr. Bush said Monday at a border crossing in Yuma, Ariz. "We deserve a system that secures our borders and honors our proud history as a nation of immigrants."

As debate on immigration reform formally begins in the Senate next month, Mr. Bush faces perhaps his last, best chance to score a major domestic achievement before progress on such controversial issues is effectively blocked by the 2008 presidential campaign.

It may also prove the best opportunity for Republicans, whose votes are critical to passage of immigration reform even through this Democratic-led Congress, to have an impact beyond what they might have if a Democratic president is elected next year.

Even so, Mr. Bush is trying to toe a delicate line. He's never been sympathetic to conservatives who believe the U.S. can simply deport the millions who are in this country illegally and build border fences so thick and so wide that they stay out. "It won't happen," he said.

Yet it's Mr. Bush's job to try to persuade lawmakers who hold such views to support a broader measure that allows for guest workers and provides a path to citizenship for the undocumented. Hence the talk of "meaningful penalties" of time and money.

Another important point of agreement between Mr. Bush and Democratic advocates of immigration reform, led by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, is the need to crack down on employers who effectively lure illegal workers over the border and then exploit them through low pay and conditions American workers wouldn't tolerate.

All in all, a successful update of U.S. immigration policy would involve a complicated mosaic of often highly controversial provisions negotiated on the head of a pin. Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona puts the odds of producing such legislation this year at no better than 50-50.

And yet the moment is unusually ripe. All involved in good faith should be encouraged.

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