On immigration, bill is a good start

Published May 24, 2007

Critics from the left and right have taken aim at the comprehensive immigration bill being considered in the Senate. They appear to be trying to hack the proposal to death even before there is a chance for serious debate and revision. The legislation has serious flaws, including a provision that would require illegal immigrants to leave the country and apply for re-entry in order to qualify for legal status. Even so, our nation has an urgent need to address the ongoing problem of illegal immigration and the Senate bill is a reasonable starting point.

The architects of this compromise include Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., one of the most liberal members of the Senate, and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., one of the chamber's more conservative voices. The bipartisan measure gives a nod to the Democratic desire to provide a path to legal status for the estimated 12-million illegal immigrants in the country, while granting Republicans some of the border tightening and guest worker provisions they have sought.

In truth, the key to true immigration reform is at the workplace. We need a dependable system of employee verification, so that employers can easily determine whether their workers are in this country legally. If illegal immigrants can't find work in the United States, then they are likely to either go home or not come here in the first place. The bill would establish a system to make verification easy and fraud-proof, and employers would face stiff penalties for hiring illegal immigrants. Creating such a system and then aggressively enforcing employer compliance is the best way to stem the tide of illegal immigration.

Under the Senate proposal there would be a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, but it would not be easy. Republicans call this "amnesty, " which is not exactly true. It would take about 13 years and thousands of dollars in fines for an immigrant to gain citizenship.

In exchange for granting illegal immigrants a path to legal status, the bill would substantially alter existing immigration policy. A new merit-based point system would be established to give immigrants with desirable job skills, education, English language proficiency and employment histories a leg up in the process. Spouses of legal immigrants and their minor children would still enjoy automatic unification but other family members would not be given the same easy entry as they have today. This approach would follow the examples of Canada, New Zealand and other industrialized countries that give preferences to people likely to contribute to the economy.

On Wednesday, the Senate voted to slash the size of the proposed guest worker program in half, capping it at 200, 000 instead of the 400, 000 in the original bill. Some lawmakers expressed concern that the expanded guest worker program could become another pipeline for illegal workers who can be easily exploited.

A bipartisan compromise on a highly contentious issue is on the table, and before it's shredded by hysterical critics, it should be carefully considered and revised. Whatever its flaws, this legislation may be as close as Congress will come anytime soon to enacting serious immigration reform.