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Borderline acceptable

April 07, 2006

WE STILL DON'T KNOW how the Senate intends to make sure the nation's employers are hiring legal workers. The fate of the estimated 4.4 million people who have lived in this country illegally for less than five years is still unclear. And there is every reason to believe that Thursday's compromise on a key immigration bill will aggravate, rather than alleviate, the agonizingly protracted process for foreigners to successfully play by the rules.

But these and other concerns pale against the urgent national need to overhaul America's chaotic and immoral immigration system. The Senate should approve the compromise today. The bill, amended by Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), was renegotiated with the bipartisan blessing of the likes of Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). It accomplishes half a dozen pressing goals.

It establishes a guest-worker program for 625,000 immigrants a year (300,000 of them agricultural workers). It establishes a challenging but reasonable path to citizenship for the estimated 7 million-plus illegal immigrants who have lived here for more than five years. They would be able to come out of the shadow economy and earn legal status (including, several years down the road, citizenship), in part by paying back taxes and fees of at least $2,000. It encourages undocumented workers who have lived here between two and five years to obtain temporary visas outside the country.

And perhaps most important, it removes spouses and children of legal residents from the hopelessly backlogged line of foreigners competing for a limited number of green cards, putting them instead on the fast track to legal residency. Families would now be rewarded instead of punished for staying in line.

As Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) told reporters, "While it admittedly is not perfect, the choice we have to make is whether it is better than no bill, and the choice is decisive."

Though Specter and other compromise-minded Republicans (President Bush, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Martinez) understand that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good, their fire-breathing colleagues in the House, who passed an intolerably punitive bill in December that triggered the largest protest in Los Angeles history, see Thursday's agreement as quasi-treasonous.

"I am disappointed that apparently Mr. Frist has caved in to the desires of Democrats, to Kennedy," Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) said at a news conference. Such faux-populist bluster is a timely reminder that the most urgent stage is soon to come, when the House and Senate reconcile their immigration bills. If Senate negotiators cave in to the likes of Tancredo, the legislation is certain to do more harm than good.

But first things first -- the Senate should end this acrimonious week of debate by approving the compromise. The good, in this case, would be the enemy of the terrible status quo.

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