- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 23, 2007

The overcomplicated immigration reform bill has landed in the Senate like a live grenade. One side wants to defuse and send it safely to the House. The other hopes it will explode, ending what it sees as virtual amnesty for illegal aliens.

No other legislative issue, outside the Iraq war, has enflamed political passions more, and a long battle is expected, interrupted by the weeklong Memorial Day recess, that will push any votes into June at the earliest — if it survives that long. With so many opponents aligned against its many provisions, it is hard to see this bill going anywhere in a narrowly-divided Congress.

Businesses oppose the bill’s crackdown on employers who hire illegal workers and the costly requirements to verify the legal status of every worker. Anti-immigration activists oppose granting legal status, let alone citizenship, to illegal migrants. Pro-immigration activists complain that the fines, temporary work periods, and requirements to return to their country every two years is onerous and impractical.

At 1,000 pages-plus, the bill is a bureaucratic, Rube Goldberg contraption of legislative provisions taped together by a bipartisan bunch of senators led by Ted Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat. A rule of thumb in such bills is to multiply the number of regulations needed to carry them out by a factor of 10. If that is true in this case, the results become nearly impenetrable.

There are of course things in the bill that each group likes. Immigration critics like its beefed-up border enforcement provisions. The business and agriculture communities support a temporary work system enforced by counterfeit-proof identification cards. But there are also many hoops, hurdles and penalties in it that both sides say are deal breakers.

With an army of battle-hardened opponents, the bill will soon be fed into the legislative meatgrinder and an uncertain fate. Ominously, Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the House bill would be very different from that now debated in the Senate — setting up another stalemate if neither house can agree on a compromise.

But one thing has struck me about the immigration debate that I have found difficult to reconcile with reality: the unquestioning belief by conservatives, who are usually skeptical about the effectiveness of most government-run programs, that this time the bureaucrats can solve our border problem.

They have voted for a 700-mile fence, about half of it already erected, along a 2,000 mile border. It sounds like a good idea and it has been effective along urban areas of the border. But you get one guess where illegals will cross in the future.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who lived in Mexico in his younger years, said this week, “If you build a 10-foot fence, someone will use an 11-foot ladder.”

Americans are justifiably skeptical about political promises, and this is no exception. Understandably, voters have low expectations of just how much our lawmakers can do, reflected in the latest Gallup Poll that gives this Democratic-run Congress a failing 29 percent approval score on its dismal record thus far.

President Bush came into office proposing a fairly simple proposition: that one way to alleviate the illegal alien surge is by a system in which a specific number of documented temporary workers can legally take available jobs — especially in agriculture — and return to their country when they wanted. The former U.S. chief of the border patrol earlier this year said the problem of illegal aliens can never be solved a legal temporary worker program.

There are polls showing a majority Americans supported that idea, but its wasn’t as simple as it sounds. Democrats wanted to provide a path to citizenship for the 12 million to 20 million illegals who remain here, and many feared that number would climb higher under any temporary worker system. The result was a widening political division, worsened by the usual congressional proclivity to add hundreds of special-interest items to a bill now in danger of sinking under its own weight.

Legislative battles can be very unpredictable and anyone who tries to predict their outcome does so at their own peril. No one would have given you any odds on the president’s Medicare prescription drug bill passing, but it did pass narrowly. Still, it is hard to see Congress agreeing to an immigration reform at this stage of the 2007-08 presidential election cycle in the last two years of the Bush presidency.

Ironically, despite conservative opposition to giving illegal aliens a path to citizenship, they would remain in the shadows of our vast economy as they have before — granting them the ultimate amnesty.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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