IN WASHINGTON, it is easier to pass a bad bill than a good bill. That's practically a law. But as Washington learned last week, there is such a thing as a bill so bad that even Congress can't pass it. So the Kennedy-Kyl Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill tanked, as it most assuredly deserved to do.
Advice to Washington politicians who want to pass a bill that grants citizenship to some illegal immigrants: Don't call it "reform." Reform is supposed to curb abuse, not codify it. Don't call your bill "comprehensive" -- when in fact it is clearly designed to do everything but craft solid policy, and loaded with amendments to sell voters on the window dressing of beefed-up enforcement likely to be administered by officials with only a passing interest in deterring cheap labor from coming across the border.
If you are going to tell people you want to grant citizenship to otherwise-law-abiding illegal immigrants, you need to be consistent. An amendment by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, to make illegal immigrants who ignored deportation orders or used fraudulent documents ineligible for legal status failed last month by a 51-46 vote.
More advice: Wait until you've ramped up border enforcement and then take a stab at broadening citizenship. There are people who, like me, opposed this bill, but would agree to a narrow amnesty measure under the right circumstances. The fact is, many of today's naturalized citizens and legal residents at one point were illegal. Some overstayed their visas, then married. Others petitioned a judge for legal status so they could care for a legal resident. Congress has passed laws, now expired, which allowed qualified residents to apply for legal status if they paid a fine.
Pundits have been quick to call the bill's failure bad for the GOP -- and it was a loss for President Bush. Still, Democrats looking to 2008 should be afraid. Their constituents don't want Big Amnesty and don't take kindly to granting citizenship to anyone who decides to break American law, as Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., apparently wants to do.
A recent Democracy Corps poll found that 47 percent of Democratic voters supported the bill, while 47 percent opposed it. With independents and Republicans opposed, the Democratic Party is also on the losing side of this issue. While many opponents saw those who voted for this bill as giant sell-outs, I have to disagree. Yes, Democrats are looking for new voters, and yes, Republicans want cheap labor, but they also are looking out for their constituents. They care about farmers and employers who might shutter their operations if they can't find willing workers. That's not good for their states' economies.
I believe that Democrats and Republicans in the Senate who voted yes on Kennedy-Kyl thought that a "yes" vote was in this country's best interest. They thought of employers who struggle to stay in business, and of those good people who only come here to work and be part of the American dream. Their fault -- no small one -- is that they failed to think of citizens who are outraged and baffled at Washington's failure to enforce long-standing laws that are supposed to protect Americans.
But they also weren't honest with voters about what they wanted. From the start, Bush should have said that his main goal was not improved enforcement, but to expand citizenship to illegal immigrants. Then the debate could have been about how best to achieve that goal, and which immigrants should qualify.
There's another rule in politics: If you don't believe you can sell a bill to the American people for what it really is, you deserve to lose.