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Making a Good Bill Better

By Ruben Navarrette

As someone who has often found fault with proposed reforms to America's immigration laws, I am frequently asked by readers to spell out exactly what kind of changes I would support.

Glad to. Especially since this is make-or-break time. Senators will vote this week on amendments -- some sensible, some dreadful -- and then hold a vote on a compromise bill.

That bill is my idea of a good reform -- provided senators are willing to make several significant changes:

-- Make the offering of legal status to illegal immigrants already in the United States contingent on the bill's enforcement ``triggers,'' those conditions that have to be met before other measures in the legislation take place.

-- Establish a cutoff. I like the idea proposed by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., offering legal status only to those illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least four years. More recent arrivals could still be deported.

-- For those who get legal status but are not yet U.S. citizens, institute a ban on receiving welfare, Medicaid or food stamps yet let them continue to contribute into and eventually draw on Social Security.

-- Abandon the proposed point-based merit system for future waves of legal immigrants without returning to the way it is now -- where family reunification is the guiding principle. Instead, we should base the whole system on labor demand and let the market drive the immigration process so we always have jobs for those who come here.

-- Subject to a higher level of scrutiny, as called for in an amendment by Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., individuals who seek to enter the U.S. from countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism.

-- Create a tamper-proof biometric identification card for all U.S. workers -- not just guest workers -- which must be presented to employers every time someone applies for a job.

Some of those changes will likely meet up with opposition from Democrats who have expressed concern that the bill slouches toward the right.

Sure, sure. And those on the right think the bill is too far to the left. That's how we know it's a good bill.

Kyl and the other architects deserve credit for being willing to make changes. With every refinement they embrace, it becomes harder for critics on the right to argue that this is an amnesty bill.

Still, I don't expect any of this to make a difference to the nativists who oppose almost any bill that grants legal status to illegal immigrants. For those who are convinced that the United States is being invaded by foreigners, and who fear that our society is turning into one in which our children will have to learn how to -- gasp -- speak Spanish, this bill remains a nonstarter.

And one thing hasn't changed. All that the hard-liners continue to offer are three-word slogans that fit neatly on bumper stickers. Their favorite used to be: ``Deport All Illegals.'' Then it was: ``Close the Border.'' Now, a lot of them are parroting the line: ``Enforce the Law.''

Here's what that's about: They insist that the federal government never got around to enforcing the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. What the critics don't mention is that IRCA was designed to fail because it lacked a secure identifier such as a national ID card and provided a giant loophole for employers who had to knowingly hire an illegal immigrant to risk paying a fine. Little wonder that, for more than 20 years, employers have played dumb and claimed that they didn't know they were hiring illegal immigrants.

Sometimes it's lawmakers who play dumb -- or at least come up with dumb proposals. Consider the handiwork of Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Barack Obama, D-Ill., and Max Baucus, D-Mont., who proposed an amendment that would free employers of the obligation to verify the legal status of each worker they hire, a requirement the sponsors consider ``onerous and unnecessary.''

Kudos to Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, who saw through this and urged the Senate to reject the amendment, warning that it ``eliminates needed tools'' without which authorities will find it difficult to enforce the law.

There's that bumper sticker again. The right-wingers insist that the law is never enforced. If they're paying attention, they now know why. It's because we spend so much time talking about how we're going to get tough on illegal immigrants, even as we devise new ways to go soft on those who employ them.

(c) 2007, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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