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Border vigilance

Unless supporters are on guard, workable immigration reform could be amended to death.

June 27, 2007

WHAT A DIFFERENCE three weeks makes -- not to mention a few billion dollars. On June 7, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) could muster only 45 votes -- 15 too few -- to limit debate and proceed to a vote on a "grand bargain" immigration bill. On Tuesday, 64 senators voted for cloture, ratifying a bipartisan deal to resurrect the legislation and allow a mixed bag of amendments from both parties.

That 64 senators voted to revive debate on the bill is a tribute to both Reid, who recognized that he had overplayed his parliamentary hand, and President Bush, who amped up his advocacy by endorsing a $4.4-billion "direct deposit" for border security. But as important as Tuesday's vote was, it's no guarantee that an acceptable bill will emerge from the amendment process in the Senate, much less survive consideration by the House or a tug of war in a conference committee.

During the next few days, supporters of the original grand bargain -- including Bush and his political team -- must be vigilant to preserve all three elements of comprehensive reform referred to in the bill's unwieldy title: the Secure Borders, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Reform Act of 2007. Those elements are better border security, a temporary-worker program to meet the needs of American business for skilled and unskilled workers and the legalization of millions of immigrants already living and working in the United States.

Even before the previous cloture vote, one of the three pillars -- the guest worker program -- had begun to wobble. With a Machiavellian helping hand from Republicans eager to doom the whole enterprise, Democrats succeeded in limiting the life of the program to five years.

In the coming debate, some senators will attempt to weaken another pillar: the generous but necessary legalization of millions of illegal immigrants. These are men, women and children who cannot be rounded up and deported but who will be reluctant to emerge from the shadows if the path to legal status is too tangled and tortuous.

One way for the Senate to keep many of them in the shadows would be the adoption of a mean-spirited proposal to require all adults in this country illegally to leave the U.S. within two years of receiving a probationary version of a Z visa. They then would have to apply for a regular Z visa from abroad and wait until it was granted. The bill as written would require only heads of households to "touch back" to a foreign country, and only if they wanted to trade their Z visas for a green card.

Take away a temporary-worker program and straightforward legalization and all that remains is enhanced border security. That would suit talk-show demagogues just fine, but it's not an outcome that Congress will -- or should -- approve.

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