Immigration reform is the right issue — at the wrong time.
It's the right issue because, now that substantial health care reform has been achieved, perhaps this nation's greatest remaining travesty is that more than 10 million people live among us in a shadow world of fear and hardship. The vast majority of illegal immigrants stay out of trouble and work hard to support their families, yet most endure poverty, hostility and constant anxiety about being torn from their loved ones and deported.
Nevertheless, it is the wrong time for Congress to make a priority of this perennially vexing issue. That's because taking the matter up now — while perhaps strategically advantageous for Democrats in Congress — risks unraveling work that has been done in recent weeks carefully constructing hugely important climate change and energy legislation. It's a risk Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid appears to feel is worth taking, although he must realize that the odds of comprehensive immigration reform actually becoming law this year are virtually nil. All of this may amount to good politics for the Democratic Party, but it's bad for the country.
The politics of the situation seem straightforward. This year has been shaping up as a very good one for Republicans, with a majority of the public either skeptical or hostile toward the health care legislation pushed through Congress by President Barack Obama and the Democrats without a single GOP vote.
But two recent developments have given Democrats an opening. First, congressional Republicans, particularly Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, started going after Mr. Obama's proposals to regulate Wall Street with the same vigor they directed toward his health care bill. However, perhaps recognizing that the country wasn't with them on this issue, the Republican leadership has now moved in Mr. Obama's direction on the need for more robust regulation of financial markets.
Then, a few days ago, a gift landed in the Democrats' lap when Gov. Jan Brewer of Arizona signed the harshest and most punitive anti-immigrant measure the nation has yet seen — legislation that would, among other things, make it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant and authorize local police to detain people on the grounds of mere suspicion of being in the country illegally.
This law is sure to provoke a strong backlash among Hispanics, who constitute the nation's largest, fastest-growing minority group. If Democrats can use this legislation to paint the Republican Party as hostile to immigrants, it may well work to their advantage in November. Perhaps it will help Democrats hold on to their majorities in Congress. But at what cost?
To be clear, we sympathize with President Obama and Democrats who feel a real sense of urgency on this issue. We remember the bitter disappointment of three years ago, when a sensible compromise on immigration reform fell apart under withering attack from conservatives. That bill contained many of the elements necessary to a successful resolution of the illegal-immigrant crisis in the United States, including a pathway to legal status for millions of undocumented residents and stepped-up border enforcement. It was pushed by President George W. Bush — who, despite our many policy disagreements with him, was bold and progressive on this particular issue — and by a bipartisan group of senators including Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
It is a measure of how far things have deteriorated since then that Mr. McCain, once a true voice of reason and moderation in the Senate's GOP caucus, came out in favor of Arizona's abominable new law last week.
Policies regarding the nation's financial regulations and climate and energy are too important to be given short shrift or to be derailed by the distraction of immigration legislation. Mr. Reid and other congressional leaders should make it clear that no action will take place on immigration this year until financial reform and climate/energy legislation are passed and signed. And if compromises on those dicey issues can be found, then who knows? Maybe the even tough nut of immigration is one that can be cracked.
It's well worth trying, but not until the time is ripe.