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Bush enters border fray.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The U.S. Senate gave President Bush a swift, much-needed early win Tuesday in his quest for comprehensive immigration reform. Lawmakers rejected a move to secure the nation's borders before addressing legalization of the millions of undocumented workers already in this country illegally.

But Congress is still a long way from repairing this nation's broken immigration system. More than 12 million people are now living here without proper documentation, and more than 500,000 will arrive this year alone - and every year after that - until lawmakers make the necessary fixes.

In a prime-time address Monday, Bush made a strong case for a broad-based reform that tightens border security, permits guest workers and provides a path to legalization for millions of illegal immigrants.

The president's plan resembles a pending Senate bill, co-sponsored by Sens. John McCain and Ted Kennedy, that is in stark contrast to the punitive measure approved earlier this year in the House. The House bill turns illegal immigrants into felons, mandates mass deportations and neglects immigrant workers' pivotal role in the U.S. economy.

In an effort to placate conservatives who define effective immigration reform as sealing the borders, Bush said he plans to deploy up to 6,000 National Guard troops along the border with Mexico.

That may be a politically necessary gesture, but it's not a happy one. The Guard is already overextended by the wars in Iraq in Afghanistan, and a protracted border mission would exacerbate the existing problem of Guard troops and equipment being unavailable to assist in natural disasters and national emergencies. Moreover, it would probably take 600,000 troops, not 6,000, to adequately secure the lengthy U.S.-Mexico border. Nor are Guard troops trained, as Border Patrol agents are, to read and speak Spanish and to understand immigration and criminal law.

However, Bush's plan acknowledges those concerns. It would limit troops to providing support roles - assisting border agents with security, transportation and construction needs - and not law enforcement duties. The Guard deployment also would be for only one year, long enough to give the government the time it needs to hire and train 6,000 new border agents.

While Bush's speech was light on specifics, it marked a welcome end to his frustrating detachment from this pivotal issue. Since 9/11, the president has chosen to float above the congressional fray and has refused to use his political muscle to move his conservative base to the middle ground where effective reform can be achieved.

While there is bipartisan support for the McCain-Kennedy bill in the Senate, the president will have to lean heavily on Republicans in the House. He should start by debunking the "amnesty" argument that's so popular among conservatives. The McCain-Kennedy bill requires illegal immigrants to pay back taxes and hefty fines, learn English, hold a job and stay out of trouble as prerequisites for going to the back - not the front - of the line for legalization. That's not amnesty.

Since Bush entered office, illegal immigration has more than doubled, and American businesses have become even more addicted to this cheap source of labor. The nation's southern border is a sieve, despite huge increases in spending on enforcement.

It's still possible that Congress can produce sound, reasonable immigration reform this year. But that will be possible only if Bush continues to lead the way through this most treacherous and politically deadly of landscapes.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; Senate heeds his call for comprehensive reform
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 17, 2006
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