Linda Chavez

Immigration reform appears dead for 2006. Leaders in both the House and Senate confirm they've been unable to reach a compromise between the respective versions of immigration legislation passed by the two bodies.

While this news will disappoint many people on both sides of the issue, it's probably for the best. The last thing we need is a political compromise that doesn't solve our immigration dilemma. And it is a dilemma, even if politicians and interest groups won't admit it.

A new Congress will have a fresh start to tackle the issue. Here are some guidelines they might want to follow:

First, we must secure our borders, but we need to do so in a sensible way that does not violate our values. The administration has already made some progress in this regard. With the addition of new border patrol agents, more sophisticated detection equipment and the assistance of National Guard troops in high traffic areas, the number of illegal aliens from Mexico has declined to a four-year low. Illegal immigration today is, in fact, less than it was during the late 1990s, having peaked in 2000.

Second, Americans are a law-abiding people. We expect everyone to obey the law, even if it is inconvenient, irrational or counterproductive -- and current immigration law is all of those things. Most importantly, we want lawbreakers to be punished. The most intractable problem in solving our immigration dilemma is to decide what to do about the 12 million illegal aliens who are currently living in the United States.

It is not in anyone's interest to keep illegal aliens living in a shadow world outside the law, nor is it feasible or desirable to round up millions of people and deport them. But allowing them to gain legal status without somehow making amends for having broken the law in the first place strikes most Americans as unfair.

Congress must fashion a penalty that fits the infraction: some combination of fine, probationary legal status and, perhaps, a requirement that the illegal alien return to his or her country of origin, even if only for a very brief period, in order to re-enter the United States lawfully. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, have offered a novel proposal on this latter score, which would establish government-authorized but privately run Ellis Island centers to process visa applications in countries that are NAFTA or CAFTA signatories.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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