Frankenstein Immigration Deal Angers Left, Right and Center

Get set for round two of the Great American Immigration Debate as Congress attempts to reform an immigration system that almost everyone agrees is dysfunctional, regardless of one's ideology or position on the issue.

Building off last year's Senate proposal -- one that came very close to becoming the law of the land -- congressional leaders negotiated a new immigration bill. Unfortunately, in trying to craft a proposal that would be acceptable to everyone, they seem to have created an abomination -- an approach in which the most liberal supporter of immigrants' rights and the most dedicated anti-immigration hard-liner will find something to loathe.

The New York Times editorial board weighed in this weekend, condemning the "deal" as a wasted effort and a missed opportunity. The original is here.

The immigration deal

The immigration deal announced in the Senate last week poses an excruciating choice. It is a good plan wedded to a repugnant one. Its architects seized a once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul a broken system and emerged with a deeply flawed compromise. They tried to bridge the chasm between brittle hard-liners who want the country to stop absorbing so many outsiders and those who want to give immigrants -- illegal ones, too -- a fair and realistic shot at the American dream.

But the compromise was stretched so taut to contain these conflicting impulses that basic American values were uprooted and sensible principles ignored. Many advocates for immigrants have accepted the deal anyway, thinking it can be improved this week in Senate debate or later in conference with the House of Representatives. We both share those hopes and think they are unrealistic. The deal should be improved. If it is not, it should be rejected as worse than a bad status quo.

The good. Part of the compromise is strikingly appealing. It is the plan to give most of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants the chance to live and work without fear and to become citizens eventually. The conditions are tough, including a $5,000 fine and a wait until certain "trigger" conditions on border security are met and immigration backlogs are cleared. It requires heads of households to apply in their home countries, sending them on a foolish "touchback" pilgrimage. That is a large concession to Republican hard-liners, but they, too, have come a long way: Consider that last year the House of Representatives wanted to brand the 12 million and those who gave them aid as criminals. A winding and expensive path to citizenship is still a path.

The bad. The deal badly erodes two bedrock principles of American immigration: that employers can sponsor immigrants to fill jobs and that citizens and legal permanent residents have the right to sponsor family members -- young children and spouses, of course, but also their grown children, siblings and parents. The proposal would eliminate several categories of family-based immigration, and it would distribute green cards according to a point-based system that shifts the preference toward those who have education and skills but not necessarily roots in this country. Supporters say that the proposal has been tweaked to give some weight to kinship, and that many immigrants would still be able to bring loved ones in. But the repellent truth is that countless families will be split apart while we cherry-pick the immigrants we consider brighter and better than the poor, tempest-tossed ones we used to welcome without question.

The awful. The agreement fails most dismally in its temporary worker program. "Temporary means temporary" has been a Republican mantra, motivated by the thinly disguised impulse to limit the number of workers, Latinos mostly, doing the jobs Americans find most distasteful. The deal calls for the creation of a new underclass that could work for two years at a time, six at the most, but never put down roots. Immigrants who come here under that system -- who play by its rules, work hard and gain promotions, respect and job skills -- should be allowed to stay if they wish. But this deal closes the door. It offers a way in but no way up, a shameful repudiation of American tradition that will encourage exploitation -- and more illegal immigration.

It is painful, for many reasons, to oppose this immigration deal. It is no comfort to watch as this generation's Know-Nothings bray against "amnesty" from their anchor chairs and campaign lecterns, knowing that it gives hope to the people they hate.

It is especially difficult because lives are in the balance. The millions without documents live in constant fear: a campaign of federal raids has spread panic and shattered families. Congress's dithering has encouraged the rise of homegrown zealots: mayors, police departments, county executives and legislators who take reform into their own hands with cruelly punitive measures. No amount of hostile legislation is going to drive the immigrants away. A collapsed immigration deal could put off reform for years and encourage more of this cruelty.

It is the nation's duty to welcome immigrants, to treat them decently and give them the opportunity to assimilate. But if it does so according to the outlines of the deal being debated this week, the change will come at too high a price: The radical repudiation of generations of immigration policy, the weakening of families and the creation of a system of modern peonage within our borders.

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