The United States today is both closer to and farther than ever from enacting a major, substantive and cooperative immigration-reform bill. The emerging deal may address all the core issues: what to do about unauthorized workers already in the United States, what to do about those the U.S. economy will continue to require and what to do about securing the border once the new system is in place. It will go beyond cruel ideas like border fences or simply deporting all unlawful immigrants. And it will involve cooperation with migrant workers' home countries, particularly Mexico. But even with support from President Bush, moderate Republicans and congressional Democrats, the bill remains in serious danger of failing.
If the reform doesn't pass Congress soon, it will be dead in the water. Having a conservative border-state Republican as president is crucial to getting such a measure passed. Only a Ronald Reagan—who signed the last immigration-reform bill, in 1986—or a George W. Bush could brave the right-wing wrath any deal will incur. And whoever the next president is, he or she won't fit that mold.
So what stands in the way of a deal now? The problem is the fig leaves. All sides want one to cover up the compromises reform must include. The enlightened right needs to avoid seeming to favor an amnesty, even though the only way to handle the 12 million undocumented foreigners in the United States is to legalize them (they will never go home willingly, and the political, moral and financial costs of deporting them would be exorbitant). The reasonable left, meanwhile, hates the idea of guest-worker programs, but knows there is no other way to slake the U.S. economy's thirst for the low-wage, low-skill workers.
On the fundamentals, the two sides essentially agree. The unauthorized in the United States have to be legalized; the ones to come in the future have to be let in through a humane, secure and viable temporary system; enforcement must be directed not only against "illegals" but against those who hire or exploit them.
Yet both sides insist on holding on to their fig leaves. To look tough, the conservatives want to levy steep fines ($3,500) on those undocumented seeking to legalize their status with a three-year renewable visa, and even steeper fines ($10,000) on those who want to become permanent residents and citizens. And they want them to go home in the meantime, until a 3 million-person backlog of applicants is processed. But no self-respecting Mexican worker is going to come out of the shadows if it means paying outrageous fines and being sent home.
The same is true for new guest workers. The White House's proposal would prevent workers from bringing their families, give them no path to residency or citizenship, and include a "touchback" rule requiring them to spend one year back home for every two in the United States. While some form of touchback is workable, these draconian conditions will ensure that Mexicans and Central Americans keep coming north outside the law.
Democrats, for their part, should rethink their face-saving demand that employers pay temporary workers the "highest" wage for a job, and revisit the idea of paying them a "prevailing" salary (below what Americans might get) instead. The latter proposal is reasonable; the former would nullify the purpose of allowing in guest workers in the first place.
Americans aren't the only ones guilty of posturing. Mexico's President Felipe Calderón started out by naively wishing he could make the entire issue go away and declaring simplistically that the solution lay in creating more jobs in Mexico (as if this had never occurred to his predecessors). Lately, however, he has begun to get serious. Mexico has immense leverage, because there can be no temporary-worker program and no touchback without it; Mexico has no obligation to allow roughly 6 million OTM ("other than Mexican") unauthorized workers to enter its territory. Of course, it should let them in, but in exchange for meaningful U.S. concessions. It is hoped that someone in Washington is working with Calderón already. And that they're working fast. The bill must get through Congress before the presidential campaigns—replete with their own fig leaves and posturing—obscure everything. Unfortunately, that may already have happened.