Senate Immigration Bill is Progress

I confess that I haven’t read the text of the compromise immigration bill agreed to by Sens. Edward Kennedy and Jon Kyl, and I request the right to, in congressional language, revise and extend my remarks.

But at this writing, apparently nobody has read it — the final text is still not available. Many Americans have been complaining that the Iraqi parliament has been taking too long to come to agreement on sharing oil revenues and other big issues. But the same thing happens in the United States Congress. Members mull important issues and seem to do nothing for long periods of time and then are stirred into sudden action — so sudden it’s hard to keep up with it — when a deadline looms. This is the way of representative democracy, which as Winston Churchill remarked, is the worst system of government except for all the others that have been tried over time.

This strikes me as a long step forward. We have long needed to regularize the flow of immigrants into this country — it is a failure of government to have some 11 million or 12 million people illegally here. To regularize the flow, we need to do several things that it appears this compromise bill attempts to do. We need to have a form of tamper-proof identification for immigrants, as obnoxious as it seems to those of us who have long flinched at the idea of a national identity card. With modern technology, this should not be impossible — Mexico has come up with a reliable voter registration card.

With a tamper-proof identity card, sanctions on employers of illegal immigrants could be enforced, as they are not at present. An identity card has this additional advantage: In a time when we are threatened by vicious terrorists, it makes it much easier for the government to keep track of foreigners within our borders.

To regularize the flow, we also have to do something about the illegal immigrants already here. The bill, as I understand it, would provide them immediately with a chance to regularize their status without putting them on the road to citizenship. They would have to pay a fine and would be subject to deportation for criminal offenses, but if employer sanctions were known to be enforceable they would have an incentive to regularize.

Also, to get in line for a green card and citizenship, the head of household would have to return to the country of origin — a “touchback” provision that was not in the bill passed by the Senate last May. In addition, we must do a better job of securing the border. Some opponents of this bill fasten on the provision that commits to building only 370 miles of the 700-mile border fence that Congress approved last year. But almost no one calls for a fence along all of the 2,000-plus mile border. I should think that the length of the fence to be built is negotiable.

The bill also contains a guest-worker program that is being attacked by immigration proponents as ungenerous. The provision would allow guest workers to work here two years — then they would have to return to their country of origin for one year before they could come back for another two-year stint.

This seems designed to create a program in which guest workers would indeed be temporary. You couldn’t make a life’s career of such work — it would tend to be a stopgap.

Another feature of the bill is that in certain cases it bases eligibility for citizenship less on family ties and more on skills. Uncles, aunts, grandmothers and cousins would no longer get as much preference as they’ve had — people with high skills would get more. This seems like a step in the right direction.

In his negotiations with Kennedy, Kyl has secured many provisions that make this bill more stringent than the one that passed the Senate last May by a vote of 62 to 36. That’s a significant accomplishment.

Changing U.S. public policy is like steering a giant ship — it’s impossible to sharply reverse course, but you can change the direction in a way that will make a significant difference over time.

That’s what I think the Bush administration and House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas accomplished in the 2003 Medicare prescription drug bill, much criticized by many conservatives. They sent the health care ship moving in the direction of market mechanisms and away from government ukase.

The Kennedy-Kyl immigration compromise, now under attack from many conservatives and some liberals, attempts to steer the immigration ship in the direction of regularization, enforcement that actually works and toward skill-based rather than family-based immigration. At least if they get the details right.