WASHINGTON -- The overly complicated immigration-reform bill has landed in the Senate like a live grenade. One side wants to defuse it and send it safely to the House. The other hopes it will explode, ending what they see as virtual amnesty for illegal aliens.
No other legislative issue, outside of the Iraq war, has enflamed political passions more, and the battle is expected to be a long one, interrupted by the weeklong Memorial Day recess, that will push any votes into June at the earliest -- if it survives.
With so many opponents aligned against its many provisions, it is hard to see this bill going anywhere in a narrowly divided Congress.
Businesses oppose the bill's crack down on employers who hire illegal workers and the costly requirements to verify the legal status of every worker. Anti-immigration activists oppose the idea of granting legal status, let alone citizenship, to illegal migrants. Pro-immigration activists complain that the fines, temporary-worker periods and requirements to return to their country every two years is onerous and impractical.
At 1,000-plus pages, the bill is a bureaucratic Rube Goldberg contraption of legislative provisions taped together by a bipartisan bunch of senators led by Democrat Ted Kennedy. A rule of thumb in such bills is to multiply the number of regulations needed to carry them out by a force of 10. If it's true in this case, then the results become nearly impenetrable.
There are, of course, things in the bill that each group can like, and does like. Immigration critics agree with its beefed-up border-enforcement provisions. The business and agriculture communities support a temporary-worker system enforced by counterfeit-proof identification cards. But there are also many hoops, hurdles and penalties in it that both sides say are deal breakers. With an army of battle-hardened opponents aligned against it, the bill is about to be fed into the legislative meat grinder, where it faces an uncertain fate.
Ominously, Speaker Nancy Pelosi says the bill that will be produced by the House would be very different from the one now being debated in the Senate -- setting up another stalemate scenario when neither house could agree on a compromise. But one thing has struck me about the immigration debate that I have found difficult to reconcile with reality: the unquestioning belief by conservatives, who are usually skeptical about the effectiveness of most government-run programs, that this time the bureaucrats can solve our border problem.
They have voted for a 700-mile fence, about half of which has been erected, along a 2,000-mile border. It sounds like a good idea, and it has been effective along urban areas of the border. But you get one guess where the illegals will cross in the future.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who lived in Mexico in his younger years, said this week, "If you build a 10-foot fence, someone will use an 11-foot ladder." Americans are justifiably skeptical about political promises, and this is no exception. Understandably, voters have low expectations of just how much our lawmakers can do, reflected in the latest Gallup Poll that gives this Democratic-run Congress a failing 29 percent approval score on its dismal record thus far.
President Bush came into office proposing a fairly simple proposition: that one way to alleviate the illegal-alien surge is to implement a system where a specific number of documented temporary workers can legally take available jobs -- especially in the agricultural fields -- and return to their country when they wanted.
The former U.S. chief of the border patrol earlier this year said the problem of illegal aliens can never be solved without some kind of legal temporary-worker program.
There are polls showing a majority of Americans supported that idea, but it wasn't as simple as it sounds. Democrats wanted to provide a path to citizenship for the 12 million to 20 million illegals who remain here, and many Americans feared that number would climb higher under any temporary-worker system. The result was a widening political division on the issue, worsened by the usual congressional proclivity to add hundreds of special-interest items to a bill that is now in danger of sinking under its own weight.
Legislative battles can be very unpredictable things, and anyone who tries to foretell their outcome does so at his own peril. No one would have given any odds on the president's Medicare prescription-drug bill passing, but it did by a narrow margin.
Still, it is hard to see Congress agreeing to any immigration-reform plan at this stage of the 2007-2008 presidential-election cycle during the last two years of the Bush presidency.
Ironically, despite conservative opposition to giving illegal aliens a path to citizenship, they would remain in the shadows of our vast economy as they have before -- granting them the ultimate amnesty.