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Comprehensive plan should require migrants to buy into U.S.

Discouraged by some outrageous proposals bandied about in the House of Representatives on how to combat illegal immigration, I had hoped that the grown-ups in the Senate could do better.

No such luck. Don’t look now, but the equivalent of a schoolyard scuffle has broken out in the upper house.

It started when the class bully, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, tried to short-circuit the efforts of the Judiciary Committee to produce an immigration reform bill by proposing a bill of his own. The gesture was a finger in the eye of Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Penn., who has been trying to unite rival factions and produce something that the Senate can discuss – all by today. That’s the deadline set by Frist for the full Senate to begin its debate of this contentious issue. Frist wants the debate to wrap up by April 7, when the Senate goes on spring recess.

What’s the rush? Congress hasn’t taken a hard look at immigration reform in 20 years and now Frist wants to breeze through the whole exercise in less than 20 days.

The truth is that the Frist maneuver is about only two things: amnesty and his desire to distance himself from anything that resembles it while mounting a 2008 presidential bid.

Frist has said that he doesn’t support giving legal status to the undocumented. But amnesty is where the Judiciary Committee is heading. Specter has proposed a bill that would let illegal immigrants remain in the United States indefinitely – provided they register with the Department of Homeland Security, pay back taxes, abide by the law and remain employed.

With illegal immigrants now accounting for 1 out of every 20 workers in America, according to a study by the Pew Hispanic Center, I doubt that the last item on the list will be an issue.

Specter also has said that he would go along with providing illegal immigrants a path to legal residency, provided that the United States first clear through the backlog of 3 million people waiting to immigrate legally.

I don’t have a problem with Frist being against amnesty. I happen to agree. Frist says he doesn’t want to reward lawbreakers; my objection has to do with absolving individuals of the responsibility to make better choices.

The trouble is, with that off the table, there’s not much left to talk about but increasing enforcement. And so, predictably, Frist’s bill spends more time discussing how to prevent more illegal immigration than what to do with illegal immigrants who are already here. Frist proposes increasing the number of border guards, improving fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and speeding up deportation of illegal immigrants. Big deal. We’ve heard all this before.

Yet, whether or not the Judiciary Committee produces a bill this week, Frist seems ready to put his bill before the full Senate.

But wait. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said that he would try to tie up Frist’s bill with procedural motions if the majority leader goes to the floor with legislation that hasn’t been vetted in the Judiciary Committee. Reid says he wants comprehensive reform – increased enforcement, guest workers and legalization for millions of illegal immigrants.

Note the common theme. This isn’t over, but it’s close to being over. In the Senate, most roads lead to amnesty. And the anti-legalization lobby is just about out of moves. And so now it’s time for them to come up with a “Plan B” and think of something they can live with.

Personally, in exchange for beefing up enforcement on the border and cracking down on employers with fines and jail time, I could go along with a limited amnesty for some illegal immigrants. Preference should be given to those who have been here the longest and have immediate family members who are here legally. The others would be deported. Those allowed to stay would have to do everything that Specter mentioned, although I’d add two additional requirements: They should have to learn English and enroll in citizenship classes.

The goal should be to get these newcomers to buy into America, and cut the ties that bind them to their home country once and for all. That’s good for the immigrant and good for America. It’s also an essential part of any immigration reform package that deserves to be called comprehensive.

Ruben Navarrette Jr., is a columnist and editorial board member of The San Diego Union Tribune. E-mail: ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com

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