The last, best hope on immigration

By Times Editorial
Published June 20, 2007

The best and last chance to tackle immigration before the 2008 elections looms just ahead in the Senate, which is expected to resume debate on legislation this week that still has plenty of opponents on both the left and the right. That's why it's more important than ever for the bipartisan coalition of supporters in the middle, including Republican Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, to keep the focus on the big picture even as they give ground around the edges.

Opponents of the legislation who keep labeling it amnesty for illegal immigrants are misleading the public and missing the point. The path to citizenship for illegal immigrants would not be a free ride; it would take many years and thousands of dollars. Those who demand that the 12-million illegal immigrants who are already in this country be sent packing are out of touch with reality, and defeating this reasonable attempt to start crafting a solution now would only make it more difficult to address later.

The bill stalled two weeks ago because of failures of leadership by both Republicans and Democrats. In his weakened political state, President Bush could not keep members of his own party in line for legislation he supports. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., grew too impatient too quickly when he pulled the bill after a failed vote to end debate. The legislation is coming back to life only because the president agreed to spend more than $4-billion up front to further tighten border security, build thousands of additional detention beds and toughen enforcement of immigration laws aimed at businesses who hire illegal workers. If that is the price of moving this legislation forward, it is a reasonable investment.

At the same time, Martinez and other members of the bill's bipartisan group of supporters have worked through a manageable list of amendments for the Senate to consider. It won't be easy. Democrats have amendments to more than double the number of green cards issued to parents of U.S. citizens, and to weaken a new merit-based point system that would give immigrants with desirable job skills and educations an advantage over some family relationships that have historically meant easy entry. Republicans on the other side have amendments to make it harder for illegal immigrants who get new visas to obtain green cards. The trick for Martinez and the bill's other supporters is to sort out which fights they can win and which ones they can lose and fight another day.

Martinez has risked incurring the wrath of conservative members of his own party and many of his Florida constituents for valiantly seeking a middle ground on immigration that combines enforcement, border security and an accommodation for immigrant workers that this country depends upon. There are parts of the legislation he could do without, including a five-year sunset on a new guest worker program that was added during the last debate and higher hurdles for bringing some relatives of immigrants into the country. But he is keeping his eye on the larger goal, which is passing legislation that would improve the status quo and pressure the House to take up the issue and set the stage for negotiations on a final bill. That is the sort of leadership that will be required for a bipartisan coalition to overcome the complaints of either extreme in Washington.

By themselves, some portions of the Senate bill would be acceptable and others would not be worth supporting. Taken together, they represent the best hope for progress on immigration - and the roughest spots can be smoothed out later.