THE failure of Congress to reach accord on immigration reform is a symbol of what s wrong with leadership in Washington. Everybody knows something must be done yet nobody can do anything about it, in part for the lame reason that this is an election year, and politicians shudder at taking a stand that might offend voters.
The United States is home to 12 million illegal immigrants. Many are doing jobs that are among the dirtiest and least desirable forms of labor. These are jobs often shunned by American citizens but nevertheless vital to the economy, from back-breaking agricultural work to cleaning up after affluent citizens as household and laundry workers.
These people can t all be deported. The expense would be astronomical and would entail harrowing scenes of families rent apart that would shame America. Even if the nation steeled its heart, it would require mass amnesia to forget that the American identity was forged by people who came here to breathe free.
However, it s not just sentiment at stake but self-interest. Undocumented workers are about 5 percent of the U.S. civilian work force. That means the nation can t deport them without inviting an economic slowdown or worse, which is why business-friendly conservatives, with President Bush among them, tend to favor immigration reform.
But if the nation needs this labor, it still can t afford to have fearful people living in the shadows as a permanent under-class without hope of ever gaining legal status not voting, not being allowed to have any sense of ownership or responsibility in what has effectively become their home. That s a certain prescription for despair and bitterness and all the social ills that flow from them.
What is maddening about the breakdown of efforts in the Senate is that the essential components of reform are well understood from Mr. Bush on down.
America must secure its borders, a natural right and obligation of sovereignty. At the same time, a sensible and realistic policy requires a guest worker program and a way of normalizing the status of those illegal immigrants already here for a couple of years, providing them a path to eventual citizenship.
That last component, of course, causes the opponents of reform to raise the shrill cry of amnesty! But the bill that came out of the Senate Judiciary Committee with the help of its chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter, and shaped by two strange political bedfellows, Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy, required prospective citizens to pay fines and back taxes as well as learn English and civics.
Call it amnesty if you like, but it was as much an invitation to responsibility.
Moreover, the bill would have beefed up the number of Border Control agents considerably and would have repaired and extended fences in popular areas for illegal crossings. Along other parts of the border, it would have put in place a virtual fence employing cameras and sensors and other technological devices to help border agents monitor crossings.
This was the needed balance of carrot and stick, unlike the House bill passed in December which was heavy on the stick and sought to make illegal aliens guilty of a felony, as if there were jails enough.
As it was, the opportunity of immigration reform was lost. The McCain-Kennedy bill was negotiated and a compromise hailed as a breakthrough was finally achieved. Then it fell apart, with each party accusing the other of playing politics.
All are to blame. So is President Bush, who has not shown nearly enough leadership on this issue. If he expended half the effort on immigration reform that he did on his doomed effort to privatize Social Security, the compromise might have held.