Sunday, August 13, 2006

The five weeks remaining in this legislative session, once Congress returns from its August recess, will likely be the last opportunity Congress will have for several years to enact acceptable immigration reform. A weakened Republican majority would have little enthusiasm for reform; a weak Democratic majority would have none. Facing this impasse, Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana has provided what we think is a useful approach to compromise. This is not an endorsement of his bill, which as drafted includes fatal flaws. But, with continued chaos on the southern border unacceptable, we have reached the moment when both sides must make concessions to close that border.

The compromise in the Pence bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, is to have a phased “comprehensive” process whereby a guest-worker program would be instituted only after the border is declared secure. This is an alternative to both the enforcement-first bill the House approved last year, which we endorsed, and the Senate’s disastrous amnesty package. We can accept the idea driving Mr. Pence’s compromise bill because it attempts to assuage concerns that the federal government, and in particular this administration, has no real interest in closing the border. We are persuaded that the security provisions in the Senate amnesty package are merely empty promises to win conservative votes.

Our objection to the Pence proposal is that the “triggers” by which the administration would determine whether the border is secure are unlikely to work. Instead of focusing on the means (i.e., increasing Border Patrol agents, placing sensors and building physical barriers on the border), we believe the compromise should focus on the ends. This would require hard numbers as proof that the illegal-immigrant tide has actually diminished to an acceptable trickle. Compiling such persuasive numbers would likely take longer than the two years the Pence bill envisions.

We continue to hold deep reservations about the rest of the Pence-Hutchison bill. We do not endorse it as written. As Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama pointed out earlier this month on the page opposite, the bill’s guest-worker program places almost no limit on the number of immigrants who can come work in the United States. Mr. Pence attempts to justify this provision by requiring private entities to match a foreign worker with a U.S. business, as if gullible conservative legislators would accept anything as long as there’s a free-market fig leaf.

Solutions to the immigration crisis must rise above the argument that “there are jobs Americans won’t do,” and beyond the interests of the business community. Paying an immigrant in American dollars does not make him an American. The answer to the crisis must turn on the question of whether any nation’s culture and economy can absorb and integrate millions of foreigners who, once here, have no intention of leaving. The United States has shown it can, but with limits.

Despite these reservations, we urge Republican members to use the Pence-Hutchison compromise as a starting point. If a consensus can be reached that does not ignore national security or leave the serious problems for a later Congress to solve, Republicans can probably break the stalemate. But they must begin, and at once.

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