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A judge leads the way

A clearheaded ruling on immigration should prod Congress into passing comprehensive legislation.

August 06, 2007

Advocates of humane immigration reform cheered, and rightly so, when a federal judge last month told a Pennsylvania city that it couldn't punish employers who hired illegal immigrants or landlords who rented to them. But members of Congress are drawing the wrong lesson from the decision.

In a lengthy opinion striking down anti-immigrant ordinances in Hazelton, U.S. District Judge James Munley has given the whole country a refresher course on the Constitution. "We cannot say clearly enough that persons who enter this country without legal authorization are not stripped immediately of all their rights," Munley wrote, citing Supreme Court decisions holding that the 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection of the laws to "persons," not just citizens.

But that was only one of the legal pillars of Munley's decision. The other was his finding that Hazelton had usurped Congress' authority. "Immigration is a national issue," he wrote. "Congress has provided complete and thorough regulations with regard to the employment of unauthorized aliens, including anti-immigration discrimination provisions."

The problem, of course, is that both supporters and opponents of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that died in the Senate agree that the federal government's enforcement of immigration laws has been lacking. Munley was right to tell Hazelton that it was minding Washington's business; but in doing so, he also reminded the country that Washington has done a poor job.

The ideal reaction to that reality would be the revival of comprehensive reform: legislation that would improve border security, legalize the 12 million illegal immigrants already living and working here and make it easier for employers to hire both skilled and non-skilled workers from other countries. But even onetime supporters of this approach, such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), are now channeling the "enforcement first" mantra.

Last month, the Senate voted 89 to 4 for a homeland security bill that would spend $3 billion on border fences, camera and radar towers and more immigration agents. Last week, McCain (whose support for comprehensive reform has hobbled his presidential campaign) joined other Republicans in sponsoring legislation that would make being in the country illegally a criminal misdemeanor and mandate an electronic system for employers to check workers' citizenship status.

McCain insisted that the new bill would "provide an essential step toward achieving comprehensive reform in the future." We'd like to think so, because comprehensive reform was more than a political pact between conservatives who wanted better border control and liberals who favored legalization. The two objectives reinforce one another: Orderly legalization of immigrants already here would allow the government to concentrate its enforcement resources on the future.

Thanks to Munley's wise ruling, the immigration ball is back in Congress' court. But Congress will be dropping the ball if it doesn't revive the "grand bargain" of comprehensive reform.

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