One more hurdle is cleared. The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee gave its approval last week to comprehensive immigration legislation. Happy news, though the risk is still high that compromise will be supplanted by ideological conviction.
To get the bill through the Senate committee with Republican support, Democrats had to abandon an amendment that would have given gay and lesbian spouses of U.S. citizens the same immigration prospects as heterosexual spouses. Thus, basic equity was sacrificed for the presumably greater good of passing legislation to rationalize immigration laws and free some 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States from legal limbo. A Senate floor vote on the bill is expected in late June.
Meanwhile, in the House, Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte complained that the Senate bill wouldn't secure the border. Attaining anything close to perfect security in a nation with 7,000 miles of land boundary and 95,000 miles of shoreline is impossible. Yet for some conservatives the notion has become close to an obsession, all but impervious to facts .
The U.S. spends roughly $18 billion a year on immigration control, more than on all other federal law enforcement efforts combined. Since 2004, the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled, to more than 21,000. The use of fencing, drones and other measures has drastically expanded. And there is evidence that it's having an effect: In 2012, the Border Patrol recorded 364,768 apprehensions, down 50 percent from four years earlier. Meanwhile, the Senate legislation promises as much as $6.5 billion more for border technology, fencing (costing at least $4 million per mile) and additional agents.
The U.S. border with Mexico isn't neglected.
In a similar vein, the House risks transforming immigration reform into one more theater in its war against the Affordable Care Act. Many Republicans refuse to support legislation that doesn't explicitly deny public funds to immigrants with provisional legal status. But in the event such people need emergency-room care, they will have to pay out of pocket. If they can't afford the typically exorbitant bills, their legal status could be jeopardized.
A House working group reached a tentative deal on the problem, with specific language still to come. But the temptation to use health care as a means of scuttling an immigration bill may prove too powerful for others to resist. Similarly, a fight over the E-Verify employment verification system is also simmering.
Speaker John Boehner's task is to facilitate debate while keeping the legislation from sinking under the ideological bugaboos that have rendered the House dysfunctional. Immigration reform may be the only meaningful legislation this House is capable of producing. If it shatters, the nation will suffer, and the damage to what remains of public faith in Congress will be significant. The damage to the Republican Party probably will be far worse.