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Will Bush Step Up — or Let Immigration Issue Fester Further?

It’s time for President Bush to demonstrate leadership on immigration before the issue splits his party and the country any further.

The White House has been holding briefings on a comprehensive immigration package, with a view to unveiling a proposal this fall. But its plans may have been delayed by a mix of hurricanes, energy prices and his latest Supreme Court nomination. [IMGCAP(1)]

This sort of delay has happened before: Bush planned to announce an immigration plan shortly before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Homeland security concerns have delayed it ever since.

In the interim, the continuing flood of illegal immigrants into the United States has become the favorite topic for talk-radio demagogues and a rallying point for nativist forces in Congress.

If Bush continues to let the issue fester, chances are good that Congress will deadlock, U.S. borders will remain insecure, 11 million illegal immigrants will continue to live in the shadows and be subject to exploitation and hundreds of people will die each year trying to make their way across the parched Arizona desert.

And if that happens, the issue is likely to become even more divisive in the GOP and in the country at large, possibly upsetting chances that Hispanics will emerge as a two-party swing constituency.

According to Members of Congress who have participated in the White House briefings — gatherings that were presided over by top Bush aide Karl Rove, no less — the administration is working on a sensible, three-part approach to the immigration dilemma.

The parts are: stronger border controls, including more manpower, technology and co-operation with Mexico; tougher internal enforcement, possibly including a new tamper-proof ID card for legal immigrants; and an expanded guest-worker program that would allow immigrants to stay in the United States for two periods of three years.

Illegal immigrants already here would pay a fine to receive a temporary work visa. As presented, the plan would require immigrants to return home after their visas expire and includes no path to permanent legal status.

But some Members attending the briefings say that the issue of permanent legalization sounds “negotiable.”

It ought to be. An estimated 70 percent of illegal immigrants have been in the United States for five years or longer and have families. It’s unlikely they’d sign up to work if there were no provisions for their families and if they’d eventually be forced to leave.

Frank Sharry, executive director of the pro-reform National Immigration Forum, said Tuesday that he was discouraged by Bush’s failure to mention immigration as a priority in his press conference.

But on Wednesday, Sharry said he was encouraged that Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff were scheduled to testify Oct. 18 at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on immigration, possibly indicating that the administration would at last come forward with a proposal.

The two dropped out of participating in a Senate hearing in July at which Arizona’s two Republican Senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, presented sharply conflicting proposals on the legalization-and-return issue.

Both bills contain stepped-up border security and internal enforcement provisions, but McCain’s bill, introduced with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), would allow illegal immigrants to pay a fine and qualify for legal status (green cards) in six years.

Kyl’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), would require illegals to return home before securing a work visas and again when their visas expire.

McCain testified that “it borders on fantasy” to expect illegals to leave the country in hopes of returning. He termed the Kyl provision “report to deport” and said the administration would be “insane” to support it.

Various GOP conservatives, including the magazine National Review, denounce McCain’s proposal as an “amnesty” for lawbreakers. McCain counters that illegals would be forced to pay a fine and that, in any event, merely resorting to tougher enforcement will not fix America’s “broken” immigration system.

Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Tamar Jacoby told the committee that it should draft a bill combining the Kyl/Cornyn provisions on enforcement with McCain/Kennedy’s on guest workers.

Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter’s (R-Pa.) scheduling of the Oct. 18 hearing suggests that the Senate might move first on immigration and not defer to “enforcement first” (or “enforcement only”) forces that predominate in the House. Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) has indicated he is sympathetic to illegals who “have been here 20, 25 years, are integrated into the system, have children who are American citizens and, quite frankly, don’t have a home to go back to in another country.”

Hastert appointed Rep. John Shadegg (R-Ariz.) to hold a series of “unity dinners” to bring together reformers and enforcers. One participant told me the sessions have been useful, but added that the House remains badly split.

Hard-liners such as Reps. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) and J.D. Hayworth (R-Ariz.) have proposed legislation designed to use the U.S. military to guard U.S. borders, convert local police into immigration officers, enlarge detention facilities, hasten deportations and increase penalties for employers who hire illegals.

Both deposed House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and his acting successor, Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), have said they envision acting on stronger border security and enforcement measures first and getting around to work permits later.

The House counterpart to McCain-Kennedy is co-sponsored by Arizona Republicans Jeff Flake and Jim Kolbe. It’s unclear when the House Judiciary Committee will start hearings on any bills.

The McCain-Flake measure has backing from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups who are concerned about employers having access to enough workers, as well as major union groups. It will likely have support from most Democrats, who are anxious to keep U.S. Hispanics loyal to their party.

It’s up to Bush to step into this morass and lead. He claimed in his Tuesday press conference to still have “plenty” of political capital left to achieve his goals. Keeping immigration out of the hands of demagogues is worth his expending some.

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