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Elections Interfering w/ Immigration Reform

By E. J. Dionne

ASPEN, Colo. -- When you're in a state that's within ground zero for immigration politics, you start having un-Washington thoughts about immigration policy: Maybe a compromise is impossible.

Colorado, whose Legislature passed its own immigration policy earlier this month, shows how all-over-the-lot we are on the matter.

It's the home of Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Republican who has become a serious national figure courtesy of his vehement opposition to illegal immigration. It is also the home of Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat who worked hard for a Senate bill that combines tougher border enforcement with a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants. Tancredo happens to despise the bill Salazar supports.

Given the current passions and the inevitable political calculations going into this fall's elections, this may be the worst moment to write a sensible national immigration policy. Bills that give a little to one side and a little to the other can get so complicated that they become unworkable and fail to resolve the fundamental issues.

The key choice is whether we want to set the 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants in our country on a path to citizenship. All sides of the immigration debate have reasons for fuzzing up this question.

Supporters of a more open immigration policy know that the idea of "amnesty'' for illegal workers is very unpopular. So they invent clever terms such as "earned citizenship'' and propose various obstacles and delaying mechanisms before illegal workers can become citizens.

But if the real goal is eventually to accept illegal workers as citizens, delaying the day of reckoning may only make things worse. A democratic country should not have millions of people inside its borders illegally with no enforceable rights. If we're going to let them stay, isn't it better to normalize their status in the simplest and most straightforward way possible?

Opponents of letting illegal workers stay don't want to argue about whether they'd like to round up millions of these workers because they know this is impossible. So they invent their own clever terms such as "enforcement first.'' Create a really secure border, they say, and then we can talk about what to do with the illegal immigrants who are here.

Of course we need more secure borders. But I'd bet you a thousand green cards that no matter how tough border security got, many on Tancredo's side of the debate would never accept paths to citizenship for illegal immigrants already here.

Typical of the problems in finding a workable compromise between the House and the Senate was a plan put forward earlier this week by two Republicans, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas and Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana.

They proposed to delay action on creating a new guest worker program until the president declared that certain required border security measures had been completed. It could give the phrase "mission accomplished'' a whole new meaning.

Once the president made that declaration, temporary worker programs would kick in. But I was struck that they'd establish a 17-year path to citizenship, up six years from the Senate bill's 11-year path. If we're really serious about paths to citizenship, do we really want to make illegal immigrants wait 17 years? And where does the bidding war stop? If 17 years isn't good enough for immigration foes, will it be further "compromised'' to 25 years? Why not 50?

Under the Pence-Hutchison plan, illegal workers would have to "self-deport'' to their countries of origin before they got visas. Honestly, how many illegal immigrants would really take the chance of leaving?

As one Senate staffer sympathetic to compromise put it, "Whatever we do is going to be a little bit messy, but there are degrees of messy.'' A bill that's too messy in pursuit of a political compromise won't solve the fundamental problems.

So here are a couple of tests: If Republicans in the Senate and the House are not willing to convene a bipartisan conference committee to hash out a realistic compromise, it's a sign that election year politics are trumping substantive deliberations.

And if a supposed compromise delays a choice on whether or not to provide a reasonably efficient path to citizenship for illegal workers -- or if it provides a path so cumbersome that it looks like a Rube Goldberg machine -- the bill will be doomed to failure before it's signed.

Achieving a workable, long-term national consensus on immigration is far more important than getting a flawed bill passed before the next election.

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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