The prevailing Democratic approach can also be summarized in one word: comprehensive. "America needs comprehensive immigration reform," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said. What does that mean? Three things, according to Reid: enforcement, a guest-worker program, and something Bush does not propose, the prospect of citizenship. "Whatever is passed should not say 'amnesty,' " the president warned.
The House passed an enforcement bill in December. It would add guards and fencing along the border and make it a crime to employ or assist illegal immigrants. When Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., threatened to bring a similar bill to the Senate floor, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., said, "This bill would literally criminalize the good Samaritan and probably even Jesus himself."
Some Republicans, including Bush, say enforcement is not enough. "The idea of having a program that causes people to get stuffed in the back of 18-wheelers to risk their lives to sneak into America to do work that some people won't do is just not American, in my judgment," Bush said.
So he has proposed a guest-worker program. Many Republicans refuse to support it, because, they say, it provides temporary amnesty; Democrats criticize it because it does not include a program of legalization for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already in the United States. A bipartisan bill sponsored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., does hold out that prospect. "It gives people who have come here, whether they came yesterday, or 50 or 60 years ago, a chance to earn citizenship," McCain said.
Frist's threat to bring an enforcement-only bill to the Senate floor caused Reid to issue a counterthreat: "I will use every procedural means at my disposal to stop it." That drew a counterthreat from Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., to block any guest-worker bill until "we have proven without a doubt that our borders are sealed and secured."
And Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., warned, "It will take enormous skill on the part of the majority leader or whoever is guiding the debate, because very critical points may require 60 votes to overcome filibusters."
The only thing the Republican majority seems to agree on is tougher enforcement. Frist intends to force the debate to allow "the full Senate to work its will on border security ... as well as comprehensive immigration reform." Comprehensive reform is what Democrats want. But if they hold out for it, will that make the immediate problem easier or harder to solve?
On illegal immigration, emotions have combined with conflicting pressures and a president who says he is spending his political capital elsewhere. That's a formula for doing exactly what Washington does best: nothing.