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Revisiting reform

It's now up to Democrats in Congress to bring common sense and decency to U.S. immigration policy.

January 29, 2007

THERE'S BEEN A LOT of optimistic talk since the November election that President Bush and the new Democratic majority in Congress can work together to reform the nation's dysfunctional immigration laws.

The House GOP leadership, after all, was the roadblock to any rational reform in the previous Congress -- not only because many top Republicans opposed it but because then-House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert inexcusably refused to allow a vote on comprehensive reform absent support from a "majority of the majority" party. This prevented the approach favored by Bush and the Senate from ever having a chance in the House, even though it might have won a bipartisan majority.

But today's optimism shouldn't be overstated. Realistically, Congress only has about half a year to act before the issue becomes consumed by presidential politics. There is temptation on both sides of the aisle to preserve immigration as an election issue rather than solve the problem.

Bush's State of the Union address set the right tone for the coming legislative debate. He called for a "legal and orderly path for foreign workers to enter our country," a better process of assimilating new arrivals into American society and for resolving "the status of the illegal immigrants who are already in our country, without animosity and without amnesty."

But therein lies the political temptation. Plenty of Republicans will want to accuse Democrats in 2008 of favoring amnesty, and plenty of Democrats will want to accuse Republicans of animosity toward Latinos, the nation's fastest-growing bloc of voters. Complicating matters is the fact that the leading GOP presidential hopeful, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, joined Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) to write Capitol Hill's best immigration measure of 2006. McCain was then deemed too soft by anti-immigrant zealots.

Leading Democrats have been on the right side of the debate, recognizing the nation's need to provide a legal pipeline for workers and to bring a population of at least 11 million residents out of the legal shadows. Yet immigration didn't even come up in Sen. Jim Webb's (D-Va.) response to the State of the Union speech. Might Democrats be tempted to put off the issue in order to deprive the administration of a major domestic accomplishment? Will their embrace of economic populism translate into raising the drawbridge?

That would be a shame. Because back in the real world, it's a national disgrace that millions of workers vital to the U.S. economy live in fear of the law instead of under its protection.

California Democrats will play a crucial role in the debate. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Howard L. Berman of Valley Village are strong advocates of helping the agricultural sector find willing workers. San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren now chairs the House Immigration subcommittee, and it will fall on her to draft legislation that combines border security measures with a temporary worker program, visa reform and a path to legalization. But it will be mostly up to Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco to resist the temptation to put politics above policy and prioritize resolving what is a pressing problem for her state and the nation.

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