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Marching on

Comprehensive immigration reform is the best way for Congress to mark the rally's one-year anniversary.

March 25, 2007

ONE YEAR AGO TODAY, more than half a million people gathered peacefully in downtown Los Angeles, stunning the country and igniting a productive (if occasionally shrill) debate about how to bring U.S. immigration policy in line with reality. Now it's up to Congress and President Bush to finish what those marchers started.

The demonstrators were protesting a grossly punitive immigration bill in the House of Representatives and asking for a legal path out of the shadow economy. Immigration restrictionists, who until that moment held the upper hand in the debate, were rendered nearly speechless at the sight of so many families cheerfully spreading a message of upbeat inclusion.

The Senate reacted to the ensuing season of protest by laboriously cobbling together a series of immigration packages that, while flawed, at least combined visa reform and a legalization process with enforcement. But the bills fell prey to election-year populism and a lack of political will to tackle a complex problem, leaving the country with unrealistic visa allotments and an estimated 12 million people living outside the law.

Overwhelmed (and overexcited) local governments jumped in where Congress failed to tread, passing a patchwork of in-state tuition laws, legals-only housing codes and taxes on remittances to Mexico.

Then last week, Reps. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Luis V. Gutierrez (D-Ill.) introduced a promising, comprehensive bill that includes border and workplace enforcement, a guest-worker program and a more simple path to legalization than was being proposed last year. Undocumented residents under the bill would be required to "touch back" to a port of entry before applying, with some exceptions. It's a largely symbolic measure worth accepting if applicants are processed promptly.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) also plans to introduce legislation similar to the 2005 bill he cosponsored with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Some Senate Republicans are considering more enforcement-oriented bills that look to be unpalatable to Democrats. The president, who has made immigration reform his last ambitious domestic project, should continue pressing for a comprehensive package to be passed this year.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and other administration officials have rightly placed immigration reform near the top of their legislative agendas. Chertoff has a good story to tell enforcement-centric representatives: Border crossings have declined, thanks to thousands of new National Guard troops and Border Patrol agents. The notorious "catch-and-release" policy of giving apprehended border crossers a court date and letting them walk free has all but ended everywhere except in the interior of the country. Visa-processing backlogs also have been slashed.

Anti-reform members of Congress are running out of excuses to act. The odds remain long, but now is the best chance to give lasting meaning to the march of one year ago.

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