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The Last Hope for Immigration Reform?

The Hutchison-Pence bill tries to bridge the immigration divide.

7:45 AM, Jul 25, 2006 • By FRED BARNES
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SENATOR KAY BAILEY HUTCHISON of Texas and Representative Mike Pence of Indiana introduced a compromise immigration bill on Tuesday that amounts to the last serious opportunity for broad--or "comprehensive"--immigration reform this year. The measure is a long shot, but it has the tacit support of President Bush. And key Republicans in the Senate and House appear willing to go along.

Its passage depends on two important players in the immigration debate. One is Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy. If he looks favorably on the proposal, then it has a chance of winning Democratic votes in the Senate. And it's likely to need them. The other player is the Hispanic lobby, the collection of groups that represent the interests of Hispanic citizens and immigrants, legal and illegal. If these groups merely decline to oppose the bill, its prospects will improve dramatically.

Hutchison and Pence have diverse backgrounds on the immigration issue. Hutchison voted against the comprehensive bill that was approved by the Senate this summer, a bill that many House Republican insist is too liberal and offers "amnesty" to illegals. Pence voted for border-oriented House bill last December that has no chance of gaining a majority in the Senate.

To break the deadlock, the two Republicans have come up with a measure with significant elements to please both houses and the president. Bush has consistently urged passage of a bill with three main elements: stepped-up border security, a temporary worker program (TWP), and a plan for allowing illegal immigrants to become American citizens. The Hutchison-Pence bill--or Pence-Hutchison--would do all three, but not at once.

It would start with the buildup of law enforcement along America's southern border: more border guards, drug enforcement agents, helicopters, detention facilities, unmanned aerial vehicles, and miles of fence. This enforcement-only beginning is aimed to appeal to House conservatives.

Once a series of specific benchmarks were met and certified by the president--a two-year lag is expected--the guest worker program could start. Illegals in the United States would have to return to their home country to sign up at private "Ellis Island centers." If they had a job in the United States, they would get a tamper-proof ID card and quickly return to the States. After 17 years, they would be eligible to begin the process of gaining American citizenship.

The basic framework for the proposal came from Pence, a rising leader of conservatives in the House. He has tirelessly lobbied for his plan, meeting with (and impressing) the president, conferring with Bush adviser Karl Rove, spending an hour with Kennedy, and working with Hutchison to develop a Senate-House compromise bill.

It's not etched in stone. Hutchison says: "What Mike and I are trying to do--we've been meeting for a month--is put something out there and say, 'Let's start.' We're not saying this is perfection. We're not saying this is the end result." In short, they are ready to compromise further.

Hutchison added several significant elements. For one thing, the worker program would be limited to Latin America countries that have ratified the NAFTA and CAFTA free trade agreements. Another would use money from workers paying the Medicare tax to reimburse hospitals that give free emergency care to illegal immigrants.

The measure faces a number of roadblocks. It may prove to lack appeal for either liberal Democrats in the Senate or conservative Republicans in the House. If that happens, it's dead. Time is another problem. Congress will be in recess for most of August and October. That leaves only September for debate and enactment if it is to pass by the midterm election on November.

So backroom deliberations will have to begin soon. The White House is expected to play a major role in these talks. Bush, Hutchison, and Pence all believe that the public, now convinced an immigration crisis exists, expects a bill to pass. And they further think passage would markedly improve Republican chances of averting an election sweep by Democrats this fall.

Fred Barnes is executive editor of The Weekly Standard.