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Bordering on real reform

Though lawmakers are far from the finish line, a 'breakthrough' immigration bill shows promise.

May 18, 2007

THERE HAVE BEEN many "breakthroughs" on immigration reform over the last two years, but the one reached by Senate negotiators Thursday came with at least two things we haven't seen before: a realistic, bipartisan plan for legalizing illegal immigrants and a meritocratic overhaul of the haphazard system for awarding visas. But this hopeful moment, like previous ones, may come to naught, pushing long-overdue reform back at least two years.

The agreement's controversial centerpiece is the new "Z visa" for undocumented residents. If the compromise eventually becomes law, all who came to the U.S. before Jan. 1, 2007, could obtain probationary legal status by passing a criminal background check, submitting fingerprints and filling out an application. Longer-term Z visas would be handed out after applicants pay thousands of dollars in fines and fees, pass tests in English and civics and demonstrate continuous employment. Heads of households would be required to return to their country before obtaining a green card, and Z visa holders would be ineligible for upgrading their status until all the existing immigration backlog is cleared away.

After years of bruising debate over "amnesty" -- the misleading term preferred by legalization opponents -- it's remarkable that the Z visa gained bipartisan acceptance. There seems to be mounting appreciation for the fact that 12 million people living in legal shadows is corrosive to the rule of law.

Also encouraging is the agreement's point system for green cards, attempting to quantify the attributes most desirable among would-be immigrants. Factors such as education, work history and English ability would be scored to determine who gets priority for green cards, rather than just the usual family connection or employer endorsement. Although deemphasizing family unification goes against historic U.S. policy, the point plan would align policy more closely to another American ideal -- meritocracy. And those family members already in line would be helped by nearly half a million visas a year for people who applied before the spring of 2005. Visas for farmworkers and high-tech talent also would be increased.

Other elements of the plan are more dubious. A proposed guest worker program could prove too rigid by being renewable only twice, with a one-year gap in between. Care would have to be taken to avoid creating a new population of illegal immigrants.

But the single most objectionable aspect of the plan is that it probably won't pass. The Senate has been here before, but the House has never embraced comprehensive reform. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has already expressed "serious concerns" about the bill, and the freshman class of Democrats does not seem enthusiastic.

The consequences of failure this spring would be catastrophic -- not only would serious reform likely be put off until after the 2008 election, but few of the presidential candidates seem eager to tackle the issue. The country can't wait until 2009.

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