- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The U.S. Senate finished a tumultuous week of complicated parliamentary and policy wrangling on immigration reform last Friday, but in the end failed to pass legislation. Lawmakers may try to breathe new life into the issue when Congress returns after the Easter recess, but many believe comprehensive immigration reform is now dead for the year.

The Senate squabbling, talk shows squawking, and this week’s protest marches illuminated the jagged contours of the issue and why a quick legislative fix in an election year is probably not feasible. Or as one observer remarked: “Why, it’s easier to get into the United States illegally than pass a new immigration law in Congress.” Last week’s outcome suggests the rhetoric may have to cool before lawmakers can mold effective legislation. It might take multiple, targeted legislative efforts over a couple of years rather than one omnibus new law in a politically charged election year — a couple of smaller bites rather than one big gulp.

Lawmakers tried to bridge the deep chasm of differences last week in the Senate. What they learned was an incremental approach may be the only strategy for success, but continued Democrat obstructionism may make even that modest goal impossible to achieve.

Hope and fear are two of the most virulent motivators in American politics — and both were on display in Congress and around the country last week. Americans are influenced by both emotions, leading to contradictory and confusing survey results. For example, 82 percent tell a Time magazine poll the U.S. is not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants from crossing the border. But by a 51 percent to 42 percent margin, Americans say illegal immigrants contribute to society rather than drain it. Time also reports just 25 percent would prefer making “illegal immigration a crime and not allow anyone who entered the country illegally to work or stay in the United States under any circumstances.” Yet Pew reports that Americans say illegal immigrants should be required to go home rather than receive legal status by a 53 percent to 40 margin. American voters are collectively shouting “Do something!” without ever settling on what that “something” is. This lack of consensus usually means comprehensive legislation is not ready for prime time and Congress should act incrementally.

Partisan politics also helped scuttle legislative progress last week. Democrat leaders in the Senate believe blocking any kind of legislative success might provide a ticket back to majority status. Again, exploiting fear and misconception, they play the now all-too-familiar obstruction card. “[Senate Democrat Leader] Harry Reid blew this process up behind the scenes,” an official closely involved in the negotiations told me. The Washington Post agreed, saying that “Democrats putting political self-interest over solving a serious policy problem ought to worry that their actions will backfire with the very people whose interests they are purporting to protect.” Until Mr. Reid and his posse drop their “all obstruction all the time” tactics, passing any kind of immigration reform will be akin to surviving in the Wild West without a gun.

Most Americans could ultimately embrace the concept of more liberalized immigration policies, showing the enduring power of American hope and idealism. Polls reveal that when citizens hear more about the details of various guest-worker proposals, approval moves up. Yet media reports depicting pro-immigration supporters waiving flags of foreign countries reinforces an equally strong emotion: fear — legitimate or not — that these new entrants want something different than immigrants of previous generations. They are a reminder that the basic institutions that helped immigrants become Americans in past generations — schools, churches, families and other threads in the social fabric — have frayed. And with this tattering, the ties that bind us as citizens have also unraveled.

Fear also animates those marching in American cities this week. But here again, the most extreme concerns expressed — that somehow Congress will pass a law that “deports” millions of people — just won’t happen. On Tuesday, Republican congressional leaders also announced their intent to drop provisions making illegal entry a felony or helping illegal immigrants a crime.

Legislative architects need to deal with fears on both sides of the debate as precursor to immigration reform. But lawmakers may have to implement this blueprint in stages. An amended border security bill, with a promise to do more down the road, may be the only practical option in an election year. Yet Democrat obsession with denying Republicans even a small down payment makes comprehensive reform impossible.

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