Imperfect immigration bill


The bipartisan immigration bill that passed the Senate Judiciary Committee this week has serious hurdles ahead. It is the most worthy attempt to fix immigration in a generation, but it cannot help reflecting today’s poisoned politics, with its tilt toward needless border enforcement and a deficiency in equal rights.

In the most moving and wrenching moment in three weeks of committee markup, the committee’s chairman, Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), sought to amend the bill to allow gay Americans to sponsor their wives and husbands for green cards. Other Democrats implored him not to put that amendment forward, saying this measure of basic fairness would drive off Republican support and kill the bill. Mr. Leahy withdrew it.

With that unhappy capitulation, the bill survives, with a possible battle over same-sex marriage to come on the Senate floor. Then the bill will need to find some path through the Republican-led House.

Over those horizons lies another threat — from employees of the Department of Homeland Security. Leaders of two of their unions have joined anti-reform hard-liners in trying to kill the bill, showing a hostility to its goals. This is bad news, given that these unions will be charged with making immigration reform work in the real world.

The union leaders are Chris Crane of the National Immigration and Customs Enforcement Council, which represents 7,700 deportation agents, and Kenneth Palinkas of the National Citizenship and Immigration Services Council, whose 12,000 members would handle the paperwork of millions of immigrants seeking to legalize their status under reform.

Mr. Crane, a familiar figure among the hard-right fringe, wrote a letter to Congress this month bitterly denouncing the bill. Mr. Palinkas signed onto it.

The letter is a grab bag of misdirection, scary talk, and lies. “If this legislation were enacted tomorrow,” Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers, it says, “would continue to be powerless to effectively enforce our nation’s laws and provide for public safety.”

That is a strange wail of helplessness, considering illegal border crossings have plunged. ICE under President Obama is deporting more than 400,000 people a year — a record pace.

The letter also falsely charges that the bill “appears to provide no tangible provisions for increased border security.” In fact, it includes billions of dollars for increased spending, on top of the billions already spent on our militarized border.

The letter throws ominous words into the debate, such as “aliens,” “gangs,” “smuggling,” and “9/11,” with no particular coherence. It aims to stoke unfounded fears that allowing undocumented people to earn legal status as a “registered provisional immigrant” will boost terrorism.

The country is better served by saner, more responsible law-enforcement officials, such as the sheriffs, police chiefs, and attorneys general who have lined up behind the bill. They say the current system undermines law enforcement by forcing undocumented immigrants to live in anonymity and fear.

We hope sound arguments will overcome the opposition from union leaders who already have decided that reform won’t work — and seem to be threatening, by their reflexive resistance, to make sure it doesn’t.

-- The New York Times