The new third rail

October 30, 2007

The toxic combination of fear, anger, frustration and righteousness that poisons the immigration debate has reached the point that even innocent - but undocumented - children cannot win a reprieve from Congress.

What's more, the majority-party Democrats, who at one point joined with President Bush against conservative Republicans to support reforms that would bring those here illegally out of the shadows, are now tilting toward the sorts of security measures favored by Americans who believe that somehow 12 million people can be driven away.

There's nothing new about this meanness of spirit; even when waves of immigrants arrived legally to give this country its distinctive cultural weave and palette, the newcomers were often reviled. But it's disturbing that the intensively competitive battle for control of Congress and the White House has encouraged so many politicians to pander to base emotions.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, warned that immigration has become the new "third rail of American politics," replacing Social Security as an issue to be tackled only at great peril. His Illinois colleague, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, rejected that extreme characterization, but poignantly expressed his gratitude to senators who "really stuck their necks out a mile, a political mile," by supporting his failed bid last week to provide a one-time opportunity for children now ages 5 to 17 to earn legal status by serving in the military or going to college.

Maryland Sens. Barbara A. Mikulski and Benjamin L. Cardin were among the supporters. But their total fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a filibuster.

With next year's elections closing in fast, the climate for immigration legislation will likely further deteriorate. Even temporary visas for seasonal workers, such as the crab pickers critical to Maryland's seafood industry, could be threatened. Ms. Mikulski managed to win Senate approval for the visas, but the House may be more hostile.

Political expediency on the part of the Democrats is understandable, perhaps, but that makes the courage of lawmakers such as Senator Durbin all the more admirable. He was inspired by young people who found themselves without a country, who were raised and educated here but not allowed to work, or deported from the only home they have ever known. He wanted to give them a path to a green card. He called his bill the "Dream Act."

Mr. Durbin obviously was dreaming that he represented a country known for tolerance and compassion. There's not much evidence of either here now.

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