Forcing the Debate

The politics of immigration reform suggest that Washington may do what it does best: nothing.

Immigration reform sounds easy. President Bush has a plan. His party controls Congress. Republican members of Congress pass the plan.

Hardly. "Immigration is a very difficult issue for a lot of members," Bush acknowledged. "It's an emotional issue."

This is an election year. And on immigration, Republicans are keenly aware of public sentiment, which opposes Bush's guest-worker proposal, 59 percent to 37 percent, according to the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

For most Americans, illegal immigration is a law-and-order issue. They think that immigrants who enter this country illegally should be treated as lawbreakers, not "guests." Illegal immigration is also a social issue involving ethnic minorities, and it is an economic issue, as Bush pointed out last week when he said, "If an American won't do a job and you can find someone who will do the job, they ought to be allowed to do it legally, on a temporary basis."

And one more thing. "Border control ... is now a national security issue," Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., said at a recent press conference. "We had 155,000 people come across the southern border last year who were not from Mexico."

The prevailing Republican approach to immigration can be summarized in one word: enforcement. "I am against amnesty, and I'm for enforcement," Hunter declared.

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.