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Outcome unclear for Senate immigration debate

WASHINGTON – Democracy in action has brought immigration law to the foreground in Congress, and now a legislative system designed to deal decisively with the most divisive issues must prove its prowess in the modern world.

As Congress mobilized to reform immigration law, Latino communities erupted nationwide in marches and demonstrations against restrictive and punitive measures. The passion and organization of their protests took lawmakers by surprise, especially in the Southwest. Organizers are now calling for a work, school and business boycott May 1, in support of residency and citizenship for illegal immigrants.

That Latinos are still no match in number for majority constituencies in any state became clear when the U.S. House of Representatives – informally known as “the people’s House” for the proximity of its 400-plus lawmakers to local concerns – passed a border security bill that bristles with restrictions, including a near-700 mile fence along the U.S./Mexico border, increased security and enforcement there, and the criminalization of assistance to immigrants crossing the border illegally.

But the Senate’s 100 members are, by design, more distant from grass-roots urgency – the gatekeepers of settled governance, if you will. Accordingly, the Senate has followed the harsher House package with a series of mostly more liberal immigration reform proposals, offering guest-worker exceptions and thorny paths to citizenship, though these have been paralleled at times by impractical demands for the deportation of all illegal immigrants one way or another (that part of these proposals is never clear). At this writing, the Senate is grappling with its latest compromise bill, with a final vote possible on April 6. The House and Senate would have to reach agreement on any bill before it can become law.

As for the executive branch, President George Bush has threatened to veto any bill that doesn’t include a guest-worker exception for non-citizen immigrants.

The concerns on every side of the issue are real, a certain element of xenophobic zealotry excepted. Immigrants may be illegal but they have established lives for themselves in America, they fill vital economic niches and for the most part they’re not going to leave voluntarily. But another 500,000 or more of them annually may be economically unsustainable; and in any case they constitute the kind of massive standing affront to established law that must either change specific law or undermine the rule of law.

Already, critics of any hospitable proposal for illegal immigrants deride it as “amnesty.” Economically, the guest-worker exceptions put forward by the president and others could easily go by another label: an ongoing cheap labor pool for American business. And the low wages for which many illegal immigrants are prepared to work will keep wages low throughout the unskilled labor sector, so the argument goes. Yet withdrawing work privileges for now-illegal immigrants would be an assault on Latino dignity, with unpredictable consequences. At the very minimum, it would foster a staggering cost in social services.

The decision before Congress now is whether to invest further in now-illegal immigrants or foreclose on their future. It’s a decision no previous Congress has had to make with quite the same clarity.