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Immigration Reform Is Still a Minefield

<I>'s</I> political column debuts with an overview of the hot-button issue.

Editor's Note: Today marks the inaugural edition of "TheStreet:Politics" from our new political reporter John Fout. It begins as a column but will soon evolve into a blog format, and will cover the presidential campaign as well as the issues that are shaping the election and the national debate.

Immigration is a lightning rod in American politics.

A bipartisan coalition of senators -- despite running the risk of short-circuiting their political careers -- have dared to broach the issue by introducing legislation that offers comprehensive reform, including border security, possible legalization for 12 million illegal immigrants, and a temporary worker program. President Bush supports the bill.

Can the political juice of the bipartisan group get the bill -- the

Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 -- passed?

Immigration has wide-reaching effects nationwide. There are approximately 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S. and estimates that 7.2 million of them are working, according to a March 2006 report by the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization.

They support families, but also use social services, such as hospitals and schools. The bill would allow many of these immigrants to eventually become citizens after they pay fees of $5,000 apiece, show English proficiency and wait up to eight years or longer.

Conservatives have pushed for tougher enforcement of immigration laws to deny access to illegal immigrants entirely. The coalition -- a highly unusual occurrence in Washington over the last decade -- hopes to craft a rational policy good for American businesses by recognizing the critical need for both permanent and temporary workers in a tight labor market.

The recent debate has shown that keeping the coalition together will be a tough task. The bill has been stalled by the perception that the nation requires secure borders following 9/11. No politician wants to be portrayed as weak on security.

Yet when Sen. Judd Gregg (R., N.H.) introduced an amendment May 23 to "control and strengthen enforcement of our immigration laws," the bipartisan coalition balked at the modification, fearing it and subsequent amendments might undermine the fragile deal. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D., Mass.) quickly maneuvered to downplay the controversy by allowing the amendment to pass on a voice vote.

President Bush called a rare news conference last week on Iraq funding and the immigration bill in an effort to pre-empt criticism certain to arise during a long week of recess.

The president found himself in the awkward position of debunking rhetoric from his own party, saying "this bill is not amnesty. Amnesty is forgiveness without a penalty."

Detractors have lined up on the right and the left.

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Bush has not persuaded many in his own party on "amnesty," including Mitt Romney, a GOP presidential contender. In a press release, Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, said "any legislation that allows illegal immigrants to stay in the country indefinitely ... is a form of amnesty."

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), another GOP presidential candidate and proponent of the legislation, lashed out at Romney: "Maybe his solution will be to get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn," McCain said.

The opposition on the left is less dramatic, but equally problematic for the bill. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D., N.D.) has led the effort to scuttle the bill by removing the temporary worker program, or Y-visa. The program is critical to the bipartisan coalition because it allows workers to work temporarily for two years.

They would need to return home for one year before getting a renewal of the visa. This initial amendment failed 64-31 last Tuesday. Dorgan's second amendment introduced on Thursday to end the temporary worker program after five years was defeated 49-48 after Kennedy persuaded Sen. Daniel Akaka (D., Hawaii) to switch his vote.

Many Democrats and immigration advocates strongly oppose changes in immigration priorities. The bill gives priority to permanent residency through a point system, which, among other things, favors more educated immigrants.

Sens. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), and Chuck Hagel (R., Neb.) last Wednesday introduced an amendment to the current legislation to protect families of immigrants. The current bill doesn't make it easy for families to be reunited in the U.S. Clinton stated that "thousands of lawful permanent residents have been waiting for years to be reunited with their spouses and children due to visa backlogs."

Some critics see in the legislation an attempt by conservatives to marginalize many immigrants and disrupt family ties. Gov. Bill Richardson (D., N.M.), a presidential candidate, came out against the bill last week because he sees it as onerous on families.

The controversial issues of the point system and employer-verification database will be debated in a week's time. Business interests are expected to oppose the point system. The fear would be that this policy lacks the flexibility required to react to changing market forces. The point system, on the one hand, gives priority to highly skilled immigrants sought by employers, but on the other, companies lose the ability to sponsor a specific employee.

Perhaps a greater concern to businesses might be a worker verification database. The federal government will have 18 months to create such a database, leaving the process open to abuse and error. Imagine if your ability to continue working or start a new job were delayed for several weeks because of a data error by a lowly federal employee?

The strong rhetoric from opponents has masked widespread support among the public, which favors many of the provisions in the bill. The latest

New York Times/CBS

poll released Friday morning demonstrates that Americans favor a guest-worker program leading to eventual legalization. They also supported the other major provisions in the bill. Americans were less certain over how much immigration to allow and whether it is a long-term benefit to the nation.

The gulf between reality and rhetoric has resulted in a paucity of legislative work to address domestic issues. Often, policies proposed under the Bush administration have had a polarizing effect. Will the lame-duck president be able to escape his own political paradigm and get this legislation passed?

Old fights die hard. I see this bill being derailed by the partisan political landscape typical of the last 12 years in Washington. If you're a bettor -- and I am -- I would say it is 5 to 4 against this measure becoming the law of the land.