U.S. Congress should reform immigration to honor Kennedy
Along with a health-care reform bill, it would be a fitting tribute to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., if Congress could act on his other great unfinished cause: immigration reform.
For all his liberal Democratic passion, Kennedy understood -- as few of his colleagues seem to nowadays -- the importance of working on a bipartisan basis to get legislation passed.
He worked with President George W. Bush to pass the No Child Left Behind education reform and a Medicare prescription drug law, though he ultimately opposed the final bill as insufficiently generous.
Kennedy's death undoubtedly will elicit calls to get health-care reform legislation passed in his memory, but reforming the immigration system was also one of his major goals yet unreached.
Kennedy worked with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Bush in 2006 and 2007 to fashion a compromise that would allow illegal immigrants with clean records to earn their way to permanent status.
The bill also would have ended the unconscionable delays that keep family members of recent immigrants waiting years -- sometimes decades -- to be admitted.
And though his motives for reform might have been primarily humanitarian -- especially, getting 12 million illegal immigrants "out of the shadows," where they can easily be exploited economically -- he understood the need to get America's borders under control.
Kennedy and McCain came painfully close to passing reform legislation in 2007, but fell just seven votes short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.
It came close despite a hysterical campaign mounted by right-wing groups and talk-show hosts that the bill would grant "amnesty" to illegals. It's akin to the current demagoguery over "death panels" supposedly created under pending health legislation.
McCain, running for president, abandoned his own bill and declared that the lesson of the reform failure was that Americans were demanding that the borders be secured before other aspects of reform should be considered.
Last month, a Council on Foreign Relations task force co-chaired by Bush's brother, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), reported that substantial strides have been made to seal the border.
"Although many in the media, and some in Congress, continue to insist that U.S. borders are out of control and insecure," the task force wrote, it also found that "border enforcement efforts of the past several years are impressive and not well enough understood by the public."
U.S. Border Patrol manpower has been doubled since 2005 -- to 20,000, making it the largest law enforcement agency in the United States.
The Department of Homeland Security has spent billions of dollars creating physical and high-tech "virtual" barriers along the border with Mexico, and the DHS last year deported 350,000 illegals caught in the United States, a 20 percent increase over 2007.
And the Bush and Obama administrations have toughened enforcement of laws against the hiring of illegal immigrants, staging large-scale raids on various businesses to make the point.
So to the extent that "control the borders first" became a rallying cry for reform opponents in 2007, improvements since then can be a pro-reform argument now.
"Impressive" as control efforts have been, the panel declared, "no amount of enforcement can eliminate the underlying problem, which is that aggressively enforcing a broken regime does not fix it.
"Unless the United States has a more sensible and efficient system for admitting legal migrants who come to take advantage of work opportunities, no reasonable level of enforcement is likely to resolve the illegal immigration problem," the panel said.
It added, "that for much of the last decade roughly 800,000 migrants could come to the United States illegally each year and find jobs is a clear indicator that the legal migration system has not remotely reflected market demand."
The role that Kennedy played as chairman of the immigration subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee has been taken on by Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who has vowed to get a bill written this year.
Schumer could well advance the cause by holding a high-profile hearing featuring Jeb Bush as a key witness along with others from the 19-member task force, also co-chaired by Thomas F. McLarty III, Bill Clinton's first White House chief of staff.
The task force's principal message was stark: "If the United States continues to mishandle its immigration policy, it will damage one of the vital underpinnings of American prosperity and security, and could condemn the country to a long, slow decline in its status in the world."
The panel made an especially strong case that immigration reform is necessary to keep the U.S. economy growing -- and that robust growth, especially in high technology, is necessary for national security.
Immigrants will enlarge the workforce, help finance U.S. retirement programs, fill low-end jobs that Americans don't want and prevent the United States from faltering in global economic competition, the panel said.
The task force recommended significant expansion and simplification of the H2-A agricultural worker program, the H2-B program for temporary, generally low-skilled workers and H1-B visas for the highly skilled.
While family reunification should continue to be the dominant principle of legal immigration policy, the task force said, more emphasis should be placed on economic immigration.
The panel made a strong case for attracting and keeping foreign students and graduates and high-skilled workers.
"Immigrants are especially important in science, technology and engineering, which are so critical to U.S. economic competitiveness," the report said, noting that more than half of U.S. scientists are foreign-born.
Other countries are now intensively competing for scientific talent, while limited H1-B quotas and other restrictions keep thousands of students and researchers from coming to the United States.
The task force recommended that "foreign students who earn graduate degrees from American universities be presumptively eligible to remain in the United States and receive employment-based visas" and that no quotas should apply.
The task force declared itself encouraged that the Obama administration has promised to make immigration reform a top priority.
Despite repeated assurances to restive pro-reform groups, however, it remains to be seen when and how hard President Barack Obama really will push to repair a system that practically everyone agrees is badly broken.
Obama campaigned in 2008 promising that comprehensive immigration reform would be on his first-year agenda, but during a trip to Mexico this month, he said it had to be put off until 2010, an election year.
Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.