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Congress can't get its acts together

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POSTED: June 7, 2007 5:02 a.m.
Yet another turn in the long and tortuous road to immigration reform, and still no guarantee Congress is heading in the right direction.
Let’s see. So far we have been through a Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act; an Illegal Immigration Enforcement and Social Security Protection Act; a Comprehensive Enforcement and Immigration Reform Act; a Save America Comprehensive Immigration Act; a Border Protection, Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act; an Employment Eligibility Verification and Anti-Identity Theft Act; an Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act; a Rewarding Employers that Abide by the Law and Guaranteeing Uniform Enforcement to Stop Terrorism Act; plus the latest named legislation, the Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy Act.
The pun is not resistible: Congress cannot get its acts together.
The latest iteration was termed a “grand bargain” in floor remarks by Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, the Judiciary Committee’s ranking Republican. Not yet an actual piece of legislation, the “outline of an immigration bill” includes an agreement in principle that some sort of path to legalization must be offered, and that it will be a toll road.
Illegal immigrants who want to become legal would have to pay back taxes, a fine (the dollar amount still to be agreed upon), have a clean criminal record, know English and be employed. There would also be thousands more border patrol agents hired, tougher penalties for employers who hire illegal immigrants and a tamper-proof (or something close to that) system of verifying the immigration status of individuals.
It all sounds familiar. Those elements have been part of any number of failed bills, though it is still difficult to comprehend the hard right’s logic in screaming “amnesty!” Illegal immigrants will pay for having broken the law. Where is the amnesty in that?
One concession to anti-immigration hard-liners is that the path to legality will not open until “we have solved the problem of securing the border and providing for identification,” as Specter put it. It’s a “trigger” meant to reassure lawmakers who insist on dealing with security first, and only after that decide what to do about the 12 million illegals living here.
There are still problems. The “grand bargain” still requires illegal immigrants to “touch back,” or apply for re-entry at a U.S. embassy or consulate in their country of origin. Eliminating the “touch back” provision is crucial. Few illegal immigrants will risk leaving the U.S. under such conditions — and if millions of people are going to still live here as illegal immigrants, what is the point of passing the legislation?
But disagreements on what to do about future guest workers should not hold up legislation.
Sanity is prevailing for now, because mass deportations are no longer a consideration except in the most rabidly anti-immigrant corners. It is time for Congress to seize the moment, secure the border and make it harder to live here illegally, while letting otherwise law-abiding families stay and contribute to American life.

Hernandez is a syndicated columnist and writer-in-residence at New Jersey Institute of Technology.
 

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