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April 07, 2006, 5:47 a.m.

When it became clear this week that there weren't enough Senate votes to overcome a filibuster against the McCain-Kennedy-Specter amnesty for illegal immigrants, supporters of that approach moved to Plan B. Devised by Sens. Chuck Hagel and Mel Martinez, this "compromise" is being promoted by Majority Leader Bill Frist, and appears to have won the approval of Senate Democrats.

Small wonder. The Hagel-Martinez plan differs little from the amnesty that prevailed in the Judiciary Committee with solid Democratic support. Illegal aliens who have been here for more than five years would receive the same amnesty; neither bill would apply to illegals who arrived after January 2004, who would have to go home and get in line for a new guest-worker program; and those who have been here for two to five years would have to pretend to leave the country (by checking in at a border crossing) before they were immediately readmitted as "temporary" workers eventually eligible for permanent residence. This plan has all the problems of the other amnesty proposals: It rewards lawbreaking, it will lead to increased illegal immigration, and it is impossible to administer.

The idea that we are going to accurately determine which illegal immigrants have been here for what duration, based not on government documents (which are insecure enough) but on utility bills and rent receipts, is absurd. GAO studies routinely find widespread document fraud and identity theft in our immigration system as it is, without this invitation to ever more fraud thrown on top of it. The compromise lacks even the most elementary enforcement provision, a move toward an employer verification system that would require businesses to determine the legal status of their hires. That was stripped from the Judiciary Committee's amnesty for procedural reasons, and was never restored on the Senate floor.

There is one unobjectionable aspect to the bill — how it will handle illegals who have been here less than two years, and who will notionally be denied amnesty (although one wonders if they will effectively get it too through fraud or lax enforcement). The Dallas Morning News reports that proponents of the Hagel-Martinez plan "suggest the newcomers would leave as jobs for illegal workers dry up amid tighter workplace enforcement." This happens to be a smaller-scale version of the attrition strategy of "enforcement first" advocates, who hope to change the incentives for illegal immigrants generally and prompt many of them to leave the country on their own — instead of "deporting them all," as the caricature of their position has it.

The vehicle for such an enforcement-first approach in the Senate was Frist's Securing America's Borders Act (S. 2454). Its passage would have allowed the House and the Senate to hammer out a compromise enforcement measure. Unfortunately, by ushering the Hagel-Martinez amnesty toward passage, Senator Frist has abandoned his own legislation and sacrificed his credibility on enforcement.

Even if the Senate finally passes this compromise amnesty, it will have to be approved by the House. That is even less likely than it would have been a few weeks ago, for two reasons. First, the mass illegal-alien marches (which will resume Sunday and Monday, and then again on May Day), with their rampant ethnic chauvinism, have caused a backlash among the public and House members. Second, new and disturbing revelations of security breaches in the agency responsible for overseeing any amnesty make clear that no legalization program can be conducted without rampant fraud.

If a much-needed enforcement bill cannot be approved this year, it would be better to have no reform at all than to have this — or any other — mass amnesty.