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A tough border bill, with a heart

April 08, 2006|Tamar Jacoby | TAMAR JACOBY is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

THE SENATE DEBATE about immigration collapsed Friday in a bitter partisan battle over procedural issues, and now legislators have left Washington for a two-week recess. But the issue is not dead. The substantive compromise reached earlier in the week remains on the table and continues to command strong support -- if only Democrats and Republicans could put aside their bickering and focus on the problem.

The word "compromise" usually signals trouble -- a second-best fallback option pulled together during a negotiation, rarely as pleasing as anyone's first choice. But the immigration compromise offered by Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) is a very good deal: a carefully crafted answer to a devilishly difficult moral conundrum that not only passes muster politically -- before the procedural meltdown on Friday, the measure was expected to garner about 70 votes -- but also can work to solve the problem on the ground.

The 12 million illegal immigrants living and working in the U.S. have always posed the most difficult challenge for immigration reformers. No one wants to encourage or reward illegal behavior. But nor does anyone who thinks seriously about the issue believe that most of these people are going to pack up and move back to their home countries, no matter how difficult we make their lives by enforcing the law more strenuously. So for our own sake -- for economic and security reasons and to restore order -- we need to devise a way to bring them over to the right side of the law.

The proposal devised by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) mandated that they earn their way out of the shadows, proving by their behavior that they were eager to become Americans. But that didn't satisfy law-and-order conservatives who wanted to see the rules upheld, period -- no special treatment and no dispensations, no matter how demanding.

Enter Hagel and Martinez, determined to come up with an answer that would meet the concerns of the law-and-order camp while coping realistically with the vast underground world of illegal immigrants.

The idea at the heart of Hagel-Martinez is exactly what law-and-order conservatives have long demanded: that illegal immigrants submit to the rule of law, with no special treatment -- that they get in line behind folks playing by the rules and waiting patiently in their home countries and that they make restitution for what they have done wrong by doing it over again, the legal way.

The proposal divides the illegal population into three groups: the 1.5 million illegal immigrants who have entered the U.S. since January 2004; the roughly 3 million who have been here more than two years but less than five; and the 7 million who have been here five years or more, many of them for several decades.

The first group -- new arrivals with few if any roots in the U.S. -- would have to leave the country and wait their turn to be admitted to the temporary worker program created by the bill. The second group -- call them the short-term undocumented -- would leave but could return to the U.S. immediately as temporary workers and apply for green cards (though the process would take longer than if they were applying from another country).

This two-tier approach is practical, recognizing that some people will be more likely than others to comply with a requirement to return home, and it seeks to minimize disruptions to settled families and U.S. businesses. But -- the bottom line -- there are no dispensations for workers in either category.

The third group -- the long-term U.S. residents -- are the exception. They have an easier path: no trip home, and an option to earn a green card through good behavior -- registering with the government, undergoing a background check, paying a fine and all back taxes, then working and learning English for six years while waiting their turn in line behind all foreigners applying from abroad.

True, this path is a little less difficult than the one offered to the short-term undocumented. But it's far from amnesty: Since when does appearing before law enforcement officials, owning up to a crime, paying a penalty and living in legal limbo for six years amount to a blanket pardon? Besides, surely it is in our interest as a nation to take account of these people's circumstances: the fact that they have put down roots and invested in their communities, often buying homes and starting businesses, marrying Americans and having U.S.-citizen children.

Critics charge that the proposal is impractical -- that the immigrants won't voluntarily leave the country, and that even if they do, processing them will be a bureaucratic nightmare. But both objections miss the mark. A recent survey of illegal immigrants conducted by pollster Sergio Bendixen suggests that they would do almost anything to earn legal status. And according to Bendixen, many told him in interviews that they would go back briefly to their home countries if their return to the U.S. was guaranteed. As for the logistics of processing, would the naysayers object to any other law enforcement initiative or security measure for reasons of administrative difficulty? Surely not.

The Hagel-Martinez compromise is much more than a second-best middle way. It's the sweet spot we have long been looking for -- a practical, tough but also humane answer to one the most perplexing problems we face as a nation.

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