Bit by Bit on Illegal Migration

One can only hope 2005 is the year Congress finally puts a lockdown on illegal immigration - nearly four years after 9/11.

Lawmakers are off to a good start after last week's House passage of measures that, as a beginning, better enforce immigration laws. The House bill now heading for the Senate this week would, among other things, require states to check the legal status of anyone applying for a driver's license - just as Mexico does. Too many states give licenses away too easily, raising the risks of terrorists obtaining one.

Honesty in IDs is just one way to keep dishonesty from spreading by way of a steady rise in illegal migrants who openly violate US laws.

The Senate, however, may balk at the House bill unless President Bush puts his shoulder behind it, as he promised last year. Divisions over immigration aren't clearly partisan. Both political parties court those Latinos who tolerate the immigration outlaws. And the GOP is divided between pro-business Republicans who support cheap labor at almost any cost and those who think a country can't afford floods of immigrants in a virtual open-border nonpolicy.

Two things may trip up the House bill in the Senate.

One is a provision giving judges more discretion to deny an asylum application based on "the demeanor, candor or responsiveness" of those brought before them. This makes it easier to deport illegals quickly. Critics, however, don't trust judges to make the right decisions based on such subjective circumstances, and want lengthier reviews. The problem is that lengthy reviews often mean more migrants may be able to escape and then join the ranks of illegals.

The other potential deal-breaker is a call for a comprehensive solution to illegal immigration first, starting with the back-door amnesties that each party is offering through guest-worker programs.

Even there, the differences are huge, with some GOP House leaders differing with President Bush by demanding that illegal migrants return to their home countries before applying to be temporary, legal workers (the decent thing to do).

But before launching new schemes, such as guest-workers, Congress can more easily pass a bill like the House's that simply toughens up current laws.

Debates over illegal immigration are often purposely confused by bogus charges that tougher enforcement is "anti-immigrant" or by the fuzzy economics of such statements as "illegal migrants are willing to take jobs Americans won't." (Without illegal workers, the labor market would adjust by offering higher wages.)

The damage to the rule of law and to overburdened social services is clear if the US continues to tolerate the massive lawlessness of more than 10 million illegal migrants. The Senate mustn't balk at fixing that huge mistake this year.

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