In an era marked by extremely divisive politics and deep partisan mistrust, truly bipartisan efforts are rare. But we were treated to one such wonder recently when Senators Kennedy (D-MA) and Kyl (R-AZ), in league with the Bush White House no less, hammered out a bill on immigration which has truly bipartisan support, and truly bipartisan criticism.

The bill does many things, some of them not at all controversial. But it also does certain things which have stirred up a hornet’s nest on the issue of immigration:

  • Make immigration dependent upon accruing “points” for such things as: fluency with English, education, job skills, and certain family connections. (Currently it would seem that 28.6% of the yearly quota is allocated for “priority workers”. The bill would make that 95% and change some of the definitions involved.)
  • Regularization of certain illegal immigrants, allowing those here illegally to automatically get a “probationary” visa which does not allow them to apply for citizenship OR a regular visa if difficult requirements are met (returning to the country of origin, undergoing a criminal background check, paying a $4000 fine, paying certain other fees or penalties, and going to the back of the list of legal immigrants waiting for citizenship). [This last means that citizenship for former illegals will take 13-18 years, since there is a current 8-year backlog, and a 5-year delay after holding a valid visa before one may apply for citizenship.]
  • A guest-worker program, separate from normal immigration, which is easy to participate in but conveys no advantage in earning citizenship. Also, guest workers can work in the US for only two years and must then return to their country of origin for at least one year. After three such cycles, they could no longer participate in the program (total time in the US: 6 years over a 9 year period).
  • Require real border security work to at least begin before implementing regularization or temporary-worker portions. This would include border fencing, additional Border Patrol agents, and an employee-verification system.

Now, this hardly seems like the stuff of madness, and in fact seems like a pretty reasonable compromise, dealing with the two real dilemmas here. It prevents those who have broken our country’s laws from jumping in line before those who have obeyed them, and it deals with the reality of millions of undocumented workers who are hard at work in the United States. Naturally, this means it will satisfy nobody.

Some of the criticism of the bill has merit. Surely, Newt Gingrich is right when he points out that the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli “amnesty” law made very similar promises about border control, worker verification, and no future amnesty laws—and then utterly broke each and every promise. Businesses are right to worry about the what they might be required to do if a worker verification law is mandated. Various people were right to be outraged at the Bush Administration’s attempt to remove the requirement for former illegals to pay back taxes. (And their outrage paid off, since the provision to pay back taxes is still in the bill.)

But surely the general thrust of the bill isn’t worth some of the vitriol: secure the borders, deal with current illegal immigrants in a way that gives them a path out without cheating the honest applicants for legal immigration or letting them completely off the hook, and provide a reasonably sane way for workers who don’t really want to immigrate to live and work here in large numbers.

In short, on an issue over which passions run very, very hot, it has the coldly rational feel of an actual compromise: which satisfies nobody but maybe, just maybe, takes a few steps towards a solution. Only a few steps, naturally, since the bill leaves large issues unresolved.

For example: what about the many applicants for legal immigration still waiting for admission (the “line” behind which the new Z-visa immigrants must queue up)? Why not speed this process by raising the rates of immigration, at least for those already in the line? If millions of undocumented workers are (on the balance) good for the nation, why wouldn’t millions of fully documented, legal, and eager ones be?

More generally, the compromise misses the real problem: we have stupid immigration laws. When millions of people risk death, injury, robbery, rape, and deportation to come here to work low-paying jobs, we should realize that those people aren’t the problem. The laws that prevent reasonable immigration and that obscure the benefits of free immigration are the problem. Sadly, these laws have become treasured sacred cows of the Left and Right and reforming them will be very hard. Until we can muster up the courage to do just that, this compromise represents at least a first tottering step towards sanity.

[Beneath the political wrangling and the natural opposition to law-breaking by illegal immigrants lurk deep and dark currents. I’ll explore these currents, how they’ve led us away from the open immigration that catapulted our nation to world-power status, and how we might rekindle that spirit in an upcoming series. – AOC]

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