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Immigration reform’s chances? Borderline

Like a cross-border tunnel, a bipartisan immigration bill surfaced last week. Apparently, it was just about as welcome.

President Bush and senators from both sides of the aisle Thursday unveiled a 360-page proposal that attempts to balance the requirements of employers, immigrant employees, their families, and those justly concerned about the dire security implications of a near-open border.

Bush has supported immigration reform since his tenure as Texas governor. It may be the most forward-looking of all the initiatives he has pursued since his election in 2000. But it has taken the advent of a Democratic Congress to get a bill he can accept to the floor of either the House of Representatives or the Senate.

Now, if he wants it, he will have to work hard to get it, with the certainty that if this bill does not pass, the issue will be dead until after the 2008 election. Supporters had hoped to get the bill through the Senate before Memorial Day, but Monday adjusted their sights for June. That alone is problematic. The House will be the tougher challenge, with the Democratic leadership saying they will need about 70 Republican votes to get the measure to the president’s desk.

His own Texas senators, John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison, both Republicans, have little good to say. The other pair of border state Republicans, Arizona’s John Kyl and John McCain, were intimately involved in the talks that produced the bill, and strongly support it.

The debate starts with Z, for four-year “Z visas” that would open the way toward legalization. To get one, heads of households would have to return to their homelands, apply, pass a background check, and pay a fine. They would also have to demonstrate some English proficiency and civics knowledge, barriers that would trip up many a native-born American.

The sticking point for immigrant advocacy groups is a new formula that puts those skills and others above the longstanding preference for family relationships in grading visa applications. They also oppose temporary worker provisions that would create 400,000 human yo-yos who could work two years before returning home for one year, with the chance to repeat the cycle once. They would have no hope of permanent residency.

Business groups, some who participated in the drafting of the bill, backed the shift to skill-based assessments because high-tech industries in particular have fought to import more knowledge workers.

Now, some are backing away out of fear the government will have more say than industry in determining what kind of workers to allow into the country.

The hospitality industry has been among immigration reform’s strongest proponents. Hotels and restaurants simply could not operate without immigrants, spokesmen say.

The Washington Restaurant Association, taking its cue from the national organization, has opposed more restrictive bills – often in conjunction with immigrant groups, says President Anthony Anton.

Himself the grandson of four Greek immigrants – one illegal – Anton says the industry has long been one that enabled entry-level workers to progress to ownership of their own establishments. Small business rarely supports more regulation, he adds, but if the new bill would remove the threat of worker deportations, owners are amenable.

So, too, with the potential for stiffer penalties for those who do not verify the visa status of their employees, Anton says. “The tradeoff is worth it.”

Tradeoffs were clearly the order of the day in reaching the unwieldy compromise measure before the Senate today. The president and congressional leaders now have to massage the bill enough to sustain a coalition that can make it law.

There are 12 million proofs the old one has failed. Despite cries of “amnesty” by reform opponents, those individuals are not going home voluntarily. Coercion would be futile, and stupid. Unemployment nationally stands at 4.5 percent, and worker shortages will become more critical, not less.

Just finding 18,000 new Border Patrol members will be among the biggest challenges should the bill pass.

By all means, control the borders. But let’s control our passions, too. Some ugly chapters of U.S. history have been written about past anti-immigrant lawmaking.

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