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Kondracke: Congress Should Reform Immigration to Honor Kennedy

Along with a health care reform bill, it would be a fitting tribute to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) if Congress could act on his other great unfinished cause: immigration reform.

For all his liberal Democratic passion, Kennedy understood — as few of his colleagues seem to nowadays — the importance of working on a bipartisan basis to get legislation passed.

He worked with President George W. Bush to pass No Child Left Behind education reform and a Medicare prescription drug law, though he ultimately opposed the final bill as insufficiently generous.

Kennedy’s death undoubtedly will elicit calls to get health care reform legislation passed in his memory, but reforming the immigration system was also one of his major goals yet unreached.

Kennedy worked with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Bush in 2006 and 2007 to fashion a compromise that would allow illegal immigrants with clean records to earn their way to permanent status.

The bill also would have ended the unconscionable delays that keep family members of recent immigrants waiting years — sometimes decades — to be admitted.

And though his motives for reform might have been primarily humanitarian — especially, getting 12 million illegal immigrants “out of the shadows” where they can easily be exploited economically — he understood the need to get America’s borders under control.

Kennedy and McCain came painfully close to passing reform legislation in 2007, but fell just seven votes short of the 60 needed to break a filibuster.

It came close despite a hysterical campaign mounted by right-wing groups and talk show hosts that the bill would grant “amnesty” to illegals. It’s akin to the current demagoguery over “death panels” supposedly created under pending health legislation.

McCain, running for president, abandoned his own bill and declared that the lesson of the reform failure was that Americans were demanding that the borders be secured before other aspects of reform should be considered.

Well, last month a Council on Foreign Relations task force co-chaired by Bush’s brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), reported that substantial strides have been made to seal the border.

“Although many in the media, and some in Congress, continue to insist that U.S. borders are out of control and insecure,” the task force wrote, it also found that “border enforcement efforts of the past several years are impressive and not well enough understood by the public.”

U.S. Border Patrol manpower has been doubled since 2005 — to 20,000, making it the largest law enforcement agency in the U.S.

The Department of Homeland Security has spent billions of dollars creating physical and high-tech “virtual” barriers along the border with Mexico, and the DHS last year deported 350,000 illegals caught in the U.S., a 20 percent increase over 2007.

And the Bush and Obama administrations have toughened enforcement of laws against the hiring of illegal immigrants, staging large-scale raids on various businesses to make the point.

So to the extent that “control the borders first” became a rallying cry for reform opponents in 2007, improvements since then can be a pro-reform argument now.

“Impressive” as control efforts have been, the panel declared, “no amount of enforcement can eliminate the underlying problem, which is that aggressively enforcing a broken regime does not fix it.

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