Paul Greenberg

But there was also much to recommend in this uneven bill: The illegals wouldn't be getting a free ride. They'd have to have a clean record, show they were employed, pay a fine and get in back of the line for a green card - and then only begin the long process of becoming naturalized citizens.

But this wasn't enough for those who want to brand all 11 or 12 million people in this country illegally felons, round 'em up and ship 'em out - even though everybody knows that's not going to happen. Well, everybody who's realistic, anyway.

Even if it could be done, the greatest victim of such a draconian policy would be the American economy. Consider all the industries that depend on immigrant labor: agriculture, food processing, furniture manufacturing, construction, restaurants, textiles, hotels, health care . . . not to mention domestic help.

The business group pressing to regularize the status of the country's illegal immigrants - the Essential Worker Immigration Coalition - represents everybody from the Society of American Florists to the Outdoor Amusement Business Association. Just the one-day demonstrations that brought millions out into the streets across the country slowed business in sector after sector of the American economy. Do we really want to impose that slowdown permanently?

The brief appearance of reason and comity in the U.S. Senate turned out to be a mirage. What killed the compromise? Party politics. With congressional elections approaching, partisans in both parties saw a chance to rally their base, and they seized it. Merely solving a great, festering national problem didn't have the same sense of urgency about it.

For the moment, Republicans can wave around the House bill that labels illegal aliens felons; it's proof they're not soft on Those People. As an electoral strategy, it might even work in selected parts of the country where nativist emotion is strong, like here in Arkansas.

The only thing the GOP stands to lose by such a tactic is the future. Because all those protesters in the streets, and the silent millions behind them, aren't likely to forget which party wanted to treat them, or at least their mamas and papas, like felons. And people remember that kind of hurt, especially in the voting booth.

The Republicans are handing their opponents the issue of a lifetime, maybe several lifetimes. For this is how stereotypes are created, and the Democrats could scarcely have hoped for a more useful image of Republicans: mean, family-destroying, economy-disrupting haters. It's the kind of stereotype of the opposition on which decades of electoral victories can be built.

Democrats have their own reasons for sabotaging any sensible compromise where illegal immigration is concerned: They can hope to keep the issue alive at least till November and Election Day. They'd be happy to help the GOP brand itself the anti-Hispanic party. Indeed, it was the Democrats in the House who prevented the Republicans, after they'd had second and better thoughts, from taking that part about "felons" out of their immigration bill.

But when the Democratic leadership stalled the Senate bill that would have legalized the presence of millions of hard-working people in this country, people whose only crime was to desperately want to become Americans, the Dems may have underestimated the savvy of Hispanic voters. Those voters can recognize the cynical political game being played here, and soon enough will figure out who blocked passage of this bill in the Senate.

In short, both parties have covered themselves with something other than glory in this stalemate. The country can only hope that being away from the miasmic air of Washington for a couple of weeks will restore Congress' perspective, and maybe even its conscience. Because it's a sin to let these ill feelings fester. Especially when the presence of these millions of Americans-in-waiting among us represents less a problem to be solved than an opportunity to be seized.

Like every other great wave of immigration that has added to this country's many-splendored tapestry and ever-growing strength, this one will, too, in time. But to realize as much, and to have the courage to act on that realization, requires the rarest of qualities in Washington: reason. Some faith, hope and charity wouldn't hurt, either.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.