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House of (immigration) blues

July 03, 2006

LAST WEEK SAW THE FIRST narrowing of the chasm between the Senate's recent comprehensive immigration bill and the House of Representatives' punitive enforcement-only package from December. Trouble is, the overtures are all going in the House's direction.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) announced that he'd be willing to stagger reform measures so that all enforcement issues were enacted first. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) seconded that motion and emphasized that the border was being strengthened. And President Bush invited Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) to the White House to discuss Pence's proposal to delay all other action until the border was somehow "certified" as secure, after which the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States would be asked to leave and apply for a visa, perhaps in fancy new e-kiosks operated by an Internet job-search company. No word on who would pick our crops, work construction sites and clean our bathrooms in the meantime.

Worrying solely about "securing" the border without securing and legalizing a flow of needed workers would have three sure-fire side effects. First, the current stream of illegal immigration would turn into a panicky flood, as people risk even more life and limb to sneak in before the southern border is militarized. Second, as has happened during nearly every proposed U.S. immigration crackdown, a rush of legal immigrants would jump into line, backing up an already interminably clogged process. And worst of all, the millions of workers who live in the shadow economy would be even less likely to come out of the cold and into the reach of U.S. law.

Pro-reform senators are making two classic negotiating mistakes: confusing their opponents' line-in-the-sand intransigence with a negotiating ploy, and elevating the importance of making a deal above its actual content. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has already indicated that he will abide by his "majority of the majority" rule, preventing even consideration of a bill that's not supported by most House Republicans.

Considering that the infamous HR 4437 was co-sponsored by Republicans such as Texan Ted Poe, who believes (among other things) that "Mexico is at war with the United States" to "occupy this entire land," and given that Congress has chosen to spend the run-up to the November elections holding unusual public "field hearings" instead of conference committee sessions, it's clear that the House GOP is most interested in inflaming xenophobic passions.

What's odd is that Senate Republicans seem to know this. At a pro-reform news conference last week, McCain expressed "regret" at the "level of dialogue" in the House. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) advised Americans not to be led astray "by a few loud people" and stated his belief that "the good people can prevail." Conservative flamethrower Grover Norquist called Republican anti-immigration rhetoric "hateful" and "damaging" and even choked back sobs.

Such bluntness is startling and overdue within the ranks of the GOP. Senators should not be overly desperate to reach any deal they can call "comprehensive" with their intemperate colleagues on Capitol Hill. If the House dictates terms of an immigration compromise, it is certain that the "reform" will only aggravate the problem it aims to fix.

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