Enter McCain-Kennedy

Saturday, May 14, 2005; A20

IMMIGRATION legislation introduced Thursday by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is not the first, and may not be the last, attempt to forge a realistic, comprehensive and bipartisan national immigration policy. In the last Congress, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) also tried it, and others have introduced bills containing similar elements. But there are reasons to hope that this bill will move further. The authors have struggled, with one another and with widely varying advocates, to find compromise answers to some of the more difficult immigration issues.

The bill requires new investment in border security and technology. But it also allows employers to hire foreigners under a temporary visa program if they can prove they are unable to hire American workers for the same job. Visa-holders will be able to change jobs (which the discredited bracero guest-worker programs of the past did not allow); will be able to apply to stay (eliminating a potential source of new illegal immigration), and will be issued tamper-proof identity documents (ending the use of faked Social Security


Most controversially -- but ultimately sensibly -- the bill allows illegal immigrants already here to regularize their status, but not easily; they would have to go to the end of the line, and that only after paying a hefty fine, staying employed for a prescribed period and paying back taxes. The bills' authors argue that this is not an amnesty, because it requires a recognition of wrongdoing. They also argue that establishing the temporary visa will prevent a new pool of illegal immigrants from arriving because it will become politically realistic to fine employers who continue to employ illegals. Most of all, this provision for illegal immigrants makes sense because any legislation that does not deal with the approximately 10 million illegals will ultimately result in more lawbreaking.

Although the politics of immigration are convoluted -- this is an issue that divides both parties -- this law has some political points in its favor. While the White House may not want to pile immigration onto its plate next to Social Security, the McCain-Kennedy bill does resemble the policy the president outlined more than a year ago, so it should attract his support. Border state politicians are clamoring for change, because smuggling and trafficking have contributed to lawlessness and a real sense of crisis along the border. Politicians from states that never had major immigration issues in the past, including Maryland and Virginia, have lately struggled with everything from the question of driver's licenses for illegals to the need for seasonal workers on the Chesapeake Bay: They want change, too. Most of all, though, pressure is coming from security agencies and law enforcement. The illegal immigrants' underworld is a source of illegal documentation and criminality, and the de facto open borders are an invitation to terrorists.

There are legitimate concerns about the long-term impact of a law such as this on American workers. But the economic impact is more complicated than some immigration opponents claim: Experience has shown that immigration creates jobs and growth over time, and countries with low immigration, such as Japan, aren't exactly an advertisement for their policies. There are also legitimate concerns about social cohesion. But legal workers are much easier to assimilate than illegals, and the proposed bill requires would-be citizens to know English and civics. This is a case where common sense and hard-nosed security concerns point in the same direction, and this bill could lead the way.

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