Thoughtful opinion by the editors of the New York Times. -Angela
April 25, 2006
The Immigration Impasse
If there ever was a moment in the debate over immigration when presidential leadership was urgently needed, it was yesterday, when Congress returned from its two-week intermission with the Senate's short-lived compromise in tatters. But all President Bush offered was a restatement of the painfully obvious and a bunch of bland generalities.
In the last installment of this melodrama, Senate leaders failed to find the courage to foil the Republicans who had lighted the fuse on amendments intended to blow apart a pale and fragile compromise. Meanwhile, nervous and defensive Democrats wrapped the bill tightly in a procedural blanket.
Mr. Bush might have thought he was answering lawmakers' pleas for help when he informed an audience in California that mass deportations wouldn't work. That's a sensible — if fairly obvious — generality. But this is a moment for specifics. The president could have argued forcefully for comprehensive reform and spelled out the distinction that the Senate has drawn between an earned route to legalization and the detested free ride of amnesty. Instead, he blandly labeled the Senate compromise an "interesting approach," as if he were pondering a piece of modern art rather than the fate of something central to his domestic agenda.
The pieces of comprehensive reform are in place: tighter borders and stricter enforcement of employment laws, more visas for temporary workers, and a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million to 12 million people who are here illegally. But the ingredients of an endless stalemate are there, too, nurtured by a Republican hard core that blindly insists that there are only two things to do with illegal immigrants: exploit them or expel them.
The Senate's latest immigration bill is an awkward, unappetizing compromise, which would shut out many newer immigrants and impose daunting red-tape hurdles on the rest. But at least it remains wrapped around a vital principle: the option of citizenship for those in the shadow population who want and deserve to become Americans.
Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says his panel will take up immigration immediately, and he insists that a majority in the Senate support comprehensive reform. But it's not clear how willing the majority leader, Bill Frist, is to stand up to those in his party's right wing who want to enshrine police-state enforcement as the beginning and the end of immigration strategy.
Comprehensive reform will also mean ensuring that if a decent bill is passed by the Senate, it will not be destroyed later when the House and Senate negotiate privately over their different measures. Supporters of comprehensive reform deserve a guarantee that a conference committee will not include senators who are eager to shred good legislation to reconcile it with the xenophobic bill passed in December by the House. And Mr. Bush needs to signal the House that he is behind the Senate's approach.
With elections looming, there are many who are content to confine the immigration debate to a netherworld of bumper stickers and T-shirt slogans, where remedies are simplistic and short-term. The Republican National Committee, after all, has begun broadcasting lies on Spanish-language radio in the Southwest. The ads accuse the Democrats of supporting efforts to turn illegal immigrants into felons, when the opposite is true.
With a strong push from Mr. Bush, the tardy Mr. Frist could guide this wearying saga to a better ending. Millions are watching, and waiting.
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company