President Bush says that America does not have to choose between being a welcoming society and being a lawful society. But at stake in the contentious debate, which may consume the Senate for the next several days, is what mix of legitimizing and criminalizing immigrants will the country stand for?
The estimated 11 million illegal immigrants are no longer inert spectators as the land of the Golden Door decides their fate. The half-million demonstrators in Los Angeles, and many thousands in other cities, should serve as a wake-up call to legislators. Some may have thought that all they had to do was to build a wall at the border to satisfy the security conscious, and to admit enough low-wage guest workers to satisfy the business conscious. "To do the work that some Americans won't do," as Mr. Bush put it, although Americans might be more willing to clean offices and pick tomatoes if the jobs paid decent wages.
As the Senate debate gets under way, it appears that one decision may have already been made. The bill passed by the House would simply build a wall at the border and declare the 11 million immigrants to be felons. It would also require clergy to check the documents of those seeking assistance. Such a draconian bill would probably not survive a conference with the Senate in its present form, not when clergymen put on handcuffs to demonstrate their abhorrence, and not when California's Cardinal Mahoney says he would instruct priests in his diocese to disobey such a law, if necessary, to minister to the needy.
There is immigration reform and there is immigration enforcement. And it seems significant that President Bush, his own popularity needing reinforcement, swore in 30 new American citizens, saying, "No one should play on people's fears or try to pit neighbors against each other."
The Congressional debate divides up between the supporters of immigration reform and the supporters of immigration enforcement. The bill approved by the Senate judiciary committee leans more toward reform and would provide a way for illegal aliens to regularize their status.
The Senate and White House are generally agreed on an approach that would avoid criminalizing illegal aliens, but immigration reform is far from being a settled matter.
• Daniel Schorr is a senior news analyst at National Public Radio.