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Real-life reform

The immigration bill isn't perfect, but it is a bold attempt to deal with the problem on the ground.

June 02, 2007

READ SOME PARTS of the proposed Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007 and you will think it aims to crack down on illegal immigration and even placate nativists, as in the bill's promise to "preserve and enhance the role of English as the common language of the United States of America." Read others, notably a bold provision offering legalization to the millions of undocumented immigrants on whom Americans have come to rely, and you will marvel at the authors' moral imagination.

Both impressions are accurate. This is not a perfect bill, and in the two editorials that follow, we offer thoughts for improvement. But the bill, cumbersome as it is, represents the last, best chance for substantial immigration reform for many years. It would improve border security, increase economic opportunity for past, present and future immigrants and repair a broken bureaucracy.

The bill's border security provisions are not, as some critics claim, mere window dressing for legalization. Otherwise senators rightly viewed as hard-liners on enforcement, such as Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), would not have signed on. Not only does the bill require the detention of all aliens who manage to bypass new fencing and other physical barriers, but it conditions full legalization and the introduction of a new temporary worker program on a certification by the secretary of Homeland Security that these and other security measures (including workplace checks) are "funded, in place and in operation."

That said, there is no denying the breadth and boldness of the legalization provisions. Immigrants who were in the country before Jan. 1, 2007, could apply for a probationary end to their illegal status and come forward without fear of deportation. If they had a good work history and passed a criminal background check, they would be eligible for a "Z visa," which would be renewable, and eventually for citizenship. Each applicant for a Z visa would be subject to a $1,000 fine and a $1,500 processing fee, and there would be additional hurdles -- some of them high -- before a Z visa would be replaced by a green card.

Critics call this "amnesty"; President Bush and other supporters prefer to characterize it as "earned legalization." But the debate isn't about semantics. Opponents argue that it is illogical to take measures to prevent future illegal immigration while offering legal status to individuals who crossed the country's borders illegally in the past. They ignore the fact that the immigration issue is an example of Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.'s observation that "the life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience." And the American experience of immigration, legal and illegal, is this: Immigrants bring to this nation energy, work ethic and an abiding desire to be Americans. They should be welcomed, and allowed the chance to become Americans in name as well as in fact.

Meaningful reform of immigration law is impossible without an acceptance by Congress of the reality -- a reality from which many readers of this newspaper benefit -- that millions of immigrants are here to stay whether or not they are brought out of the shadows by legislation. The realistic alternative to legalization is not mass deportation but a perpetuation of the unsatisfactory status quo, "broken borders" and all.

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