President Bush's visit to Arizona on Monday to plug his immigration-reform agenda is the welcome push which — if he sustains it into 2006 — just might move this volatile issue onto Congress' agenda as well.
The president long has supported a sound two-pronged approach to immigration policy: Strengthen border enforcement while also accommodating a flow of entry-level Mexican labor with a guest-worker program.
As we've said repeatedly in this space, a workable bill will have to contain both elements, in some form, in order to get the political support needed for passage. Finding the right combination won't be easy; sustained pressure from the public and White House is needed to keep Congress from continuing to avoid the issue.
Much of the conflict is within Republican ranks. Hard-liners like U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., support an “enforcement first” approach that beefs up border security and puts the onus on employers to make sure their workers are legal; but it doesn't include a guest-worker program.
Business interests insist they need a reliable supply of entry-level foreign labor and can be expected to resist any measure that doesn't include such a provision. Competing bills introduced by U.S. Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain, both R-Ariz., include guest-worker provisions and tighter border security, with Kyl's measure taking the tougher enforcement stance.
The issue has been badly clouded by accusations from the hard-liners that any mechanism for allowing current illegal immigrants to gain legal status amounts to amnesty for lawbreakers. They point to immigration reform in the mid-1980s that essentially did grant amnesty to illegals, and served only to encourage the current wave of illegal immigration.
The highly polarized and emotional debate continues to rage in Arizona and other border states as the public grows increasingly alarmed about the rising costs of illegal immigration on tax-funded services such as education and health care. There are legitimate concerns as well about the prospect of terrorists slipping into the country across our porous border.
In order for a practical solution to be forged, the debate must move into the halls of Congress. The president's focusing attention on the issue in Arizona on Monday, and in Texas today, should help in that regard. And he must keep the pressure on once he's back in Washington.