Dreaming a Dream in Red, White, and Blue
The Senate compromise on immigration reform that fell apart before Congress adjourned this month was just the latest evidence of Washington's increasing dysfunctionality, but last week's coast-to-coast demonstrations showed that the problem--and the pressure on lawmakers to fix it--won't be going away anytime soon. Rather than fan flames of antagonism, the demonstrations have reinforced a national sympathy for the 12 million undocumented migrants here, even as Americans continue to insist that the tide of new illegal immigrants be stopped immediately. A new Gallup Poll shows that more than 6 in 10 Americans favor giving undocumented workers a path to citizenship, as long as they keep their jobs, learn English, and meet a few other requirements. Fewer than 1 in 5 favors deporting them or instituting a temporary-guest-worker program. The survey also found that most respondents think immigrating illegally to this country--and helping those who do--should be treated as crimes. "Americans have many different ideas and emotions about immigration swirling in their heads at once," says Gallup Editor in Chief Frank Newport, "I don't call them contradictory. I call them complex."
The complexity was captured neatly in last month's short-lived Senate compromise, which called for a virtual wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and provided citizenship opportunities for undocumented workers here for longer periods of time but required more recent arrivals to return home. Next week, senators may take another whack at the immigration piñata, but with some Democrats keen on letting the House's enforcement-only bill stand and the GOP base split on the issue, both parties may decide to punt. Even if the Senate manages to pass some reform legislation, it would have to be reconciled with the wildly different House bill.
Doing nothing, however, has its own political perils. Illegal immigration, usually near the bottom of voters' priority lists, has suddenly shot right to the top. More congressional squabbling--and more marching in the streets--may just keep it there.
This story appears in the April 24, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.