Resentment wins, again

June 29, 2007

The Senate majority that voted yesterday to crush what is almost certainly the last opportunity to fix America's broken immigration system for at least two years was responding to constituents with unreasonable expectations.

Flogged into a fury by talk-show agitators and Internet provocateurs, thousands of people called, wrote and e-mailed their senators to protest legislation they believed would do nothing to stop the flow of illegal entry into this country, would forgive millions of illegals already here and would burden taxpayers with the cost to schools and health care.

Granted, the bill at issue was widely described as imperfect. But killing it ensures that the worst fears of opponents will be realized.

No one is going to round up 12 million people here illegally, kick them out of the country and lock the door behind them, as some critics of the reform measure propose. Even if there were a will to do it, there's no practical way.

The 700-mile fence between the United States and Mexico that Congress approved last year is creating an uproar because of the damage it poses for the towns and countryside along the border. But the fence is not expected to provide any more than symbolic comfort to those who want the border sealed.

Impoverished people will continue to find a way into the United States for the economic opportunities. Changes in the law intended to make it more difficult for workers to be hired using phony papers will die along with the rest of the bill. And while the 12 million undocumented foreigners living in the shadows won't get the purported amnesty that offended so many Americans, they will continue to be part of American communities, contributing to and drawing from their resources, in a limbo status dubbed "silent amnesty" by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Unlike the House of Representatives, the Senate was designed to be more resistant to demagogic passions. Indeed, on Tuesday, a bipartisan majority of 64 senators resurrected the immigration bill from what had appeared a near-fatal setback so that it could be debated, amended and potentially approved. But angry voters didn't appreciate the value of that procedural courtesy and deluged the senators with such a protest that only 46 senators voted yesterday in favor of another procedural question that would have positioned the bill for a final vote today. Sixty votes were needed.

"People who have played by the rules all their life feel like people are getting ahead not playing by the rules," said Rep. John Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat who got an earful of such sentiment at a town hall meeting in Annapolis recently. This high emotional pitch "is a sign of how dysfunctional the current system is," he added.

Doing nothing, though, is not a fix.

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