Rescuing a deal on illegal immigration

Neither the street protests on behalf of illegal migrants, nor the quiet protests against them, bode well for the Senate trying again soon to pass a reform bill. Political opportunists see an advantage in keeping this issue hot through the fall elections.

Last week's near-compromise in the Senate fell apart because, as Sen. Edward Kennedy said, "The politics got ahead of policy on this in spite of everyone's efforts to separate this out." Some senators wanted to run on this campaign issue, while others thought a final bill might make them vulnerable to simplistic charges on the campaign trail, and so they threatened to scuttle the proposed deal.

Still, the Senate majority consensus did show that the political divide on illegal migration can start to be bridged - in trying to secure the US border against this massive lawlessness and the possible infiltration by terrorists, as well as in dealing with the millions of illegals "hiding in the shadows" of American society.

The key plank of that consensus was that illegal migrants had violated US law and must pay the price before dealing with their status. (The House already reached that conclusion in passing its reform bill earlier.) That's a necessary and initial agreement for Americans and legal immigrants before this debate can move forward.

Up to now, those who oppose illegal migration have sometimes been tarred as being anti-immigrant, or even racist. Their opponents have also tried to justify the spreading presence of illegal migrants into almost every community as necessary for the US economy, rather than simply seek more legal migration.

Now, as a result of the Senate consensus, the plain issue of illegality has been addressed frontally by Congress. A "nation of immigrants" wants to keep its immigration legal.

A second plank of the Senate consensus is that certain penalties against these lawbreakers are essential to deter more illegal migrants and reduce the bitterness of the millions of migrants who entered the US legally after waiting their turn.

Such penalties would send a message that the US doesn't want to repeat the mistake made by a 1986 law that granted legal status to illegal migrants without any penalty to pay - a move that may have encouraged even more, often-fatal illegal crossings.

A third plank in the consensus is this: The severity of the penalty has to be high enough to create a disincentive for would-be illegal migrants but low enough for current illegal migrants to come out of the shadows and accept the consequences.

The Senate plan included a complicated, perhaps even unworkable, way to implement that difficult way of clearing up this illegal status of millions - short of police raids in every neighborhood. But nonetheless, that principle has now been set for the next round of reform debate.

These three planks should help better frame the debate in the weeks or months ahead. Let's hope Congress doesn't wait another year. If it does, then states may need to innovate with their own remedies while Washington fiddles, as it often does on tough national issues.

But both sides found enough common ground last week that Congress cannot abandon efforts to finally secure US borders.

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