General agreement among political observers after the U.S. Senate failed to advance immigration reform Thursday is the issue might not come back until 2009, after another round of congressional elections and a new president is in the White House.
While this outcome is frustrating, Americans and our political leaders apparently are too divided about how to handle the various aspects of the immigration problem as it relates to our national security, economic prowess and cultural harmony.
But Sens. John McCain and Jon Kyl had the right attitude in the wake of this defeat: The status quo is unacceptable so true leaders must find other ways to secure our borders while not starving business sectors that need a reliable pool of foreign labor to supplement their American workforces.
A fundamental challenge for Washington in the next few months will be to address the central concern that fuels much of the skepticism to any reform — can the federal government ever gain control of the borders and effectively track foreign guest workers? Homeland Security and other federal agencies must take further concrete steps to reverse this country’s lousy track record and establish a base level of trust that currently doesn’t exist. Otherwise, true reform likely will never occur.
President Bush invested nearly all of his remaining political capital into the Senate plan that failed. So Thursday’s loss likely was the beginning of a long, painful, downward slide to the end of his presidency. But Bush could salvage at least a little of his legacy if his administration starts laying groundwork that could change the tenor of the immigration debate. That requires the Bush administration to fulfill a number of previous promises: complete at least 370 miles of new fencing on the Mexican border, expand the “virtual fence” to the entire 2,000-mile stretch, beef up workplace enforcement, recruit enough immigration agents to fill the slots approved by Congress, and demonstrate the government can carry out new security initiatives, such the passport travel requirement — instead of fumbling around and creating huge headaches for Americans without doing much to make us safer.
Some of Bush’s success will depend on Congress approving new funding to support these measures. Since most of these steps were previously passed as laws with bipartisan backing, there should be no reason for Congress to balk with an excuse that it’s not part of overall immigration reform.
Meanwhile, Americans should start recognizing the trade-offs required to implement an agenda of trust-building. Border construction and workplace enforcement will be expensive, time-consuming and will create new disruptions to business activities and the environment. We can’t demand the federal government “seal the border” and then expect to live as we always have.
That’s what got us into this mess in the first place.