WHEN juries can't reach a verdict in important trials, judges often instruct them to try again and keep on going until it's clearly hopeless. When the U.S. Senate debates one of the nation's thorniest issues without reaching a consensus, its members give up and point fingers at each other.
That is the sorry state of immigration reform, which last week dissolved into mutual recriminations and no action after two weeks of debate. It has been characterized as a significant setback for President Bush, who supported the effort. But that's the wrong way to look at it; the President's loss is also the nation's.
As we have observed before, immigration reform is not a luxury; it is a necessity. To have 12 million illegal immigrants permanently living in the shadows - and who can't all realistically be deported - makes no sense as social policy.
A wise course has long been understood to have two components: sealing the borders to stop the flow of further illegal aliens and normalizing the legal status of those already here so that legitimacy can engender civic duty and responsibility in these newly minted stakeholders.
The compromise worked out in May had the essential elements but, as always, the devil is in the details.
Some liberals resent a proposed new employment-based point system that gives weight to skills and education in green-card applications at the expense of family members of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents. Many conservatives reject the whole idea of amnesty. Despite the fines and inconveniences that come with putting illegal immigrants on the road to citizenship, many on the right are implacably opposed to an amnesty that rewards people who have broken the law.
That group is probably the biggest political problem, because talk-show hosts and others have demagogued the issue almost to death. In this climate, myths have prospered. For example, to hear some tell it, illegal aliens commit a disproportionate amount of crime (in fact, according to a new study by the Immigration Policy Center, incarceration rates for immigrants are lower than for native-born residents).
Some of the feelings raised by immigration are ugly, almost as if the issue has become racism's last socially acceptable outlet. But the American people also have decent concerns. They remember the last amnesty in 1986; it did not cure the problem. That might be somewhere to start in breathing new life into this proposal: Make sure that nobody is given a visa until the flow of immigrants is stanched.
This is not a lost cause. Most Americans are compassionate. They also know that a sovereign nation can't allow it to go on forever.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada blamed President Bush's lack of leadership for this failure, but it was the Democrats who, ignoring Republican pleas for more time, pressed ahead to end the debate and schedule a final vote, only to come up 15 votes short.
Mr. Reid and the Senate need to go back to work and not quit until they are done.