Washington Anticipating that President Bush would weigh in on immigration reform, I asked Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice if she believed a solution beckoned.
Her response, which has been reinforced by the president's own recent comments, started on the human side of the issue: "He's rather famous for a quote that family values don't stop at the Rio Grande. And he recognizes - and has talked to me from the time that I first met him - about the contribution that immigrants make to this society, including people who may have crossed illegally."
But are we not a nation of laws that deserves secure borders?
Of course, Rice indicated, and all that must be part of a comprehensive policy on immigration. Such a policy should not force people to live in the shadows and also not reward them for having broken U.S. laws, she said. The right policy would be, in her words, "a delicate place."
OK, but getting there does not require endless debate. When Bush first took office, he proposed immigration reforms - including a temporary guest-worker program - that had merit. It was neither the hard line of immigrant-bashers nor the amnesty that Mexican President Vicente Fox had sought, but it offered much room for discussion. Never mind the grousing of critics who suspected a secondary political agenda of ensuring a steady supply of inexpensive labor. One has no trouble finding political motives on all sides of this issue.
Unfortunately, Bush's immigration ideas fell victim to the tragedy of Sept. 11, 2001. Yet the two issues - illegal immigration and terrorism - are hardly mutually exclusive. Indeed, many of the steps that could have been taken to secure U.S. borders and ports of entry against illegal migrants before 9-11 would have helped keep terrorists at bay.
In dealing with illegal immigration, Washington cannot simply impose its will, as other issues such as Iraq have amply demonstrated. To insist on fortifying the U.S.-Mexico border and forcing all illegal migrants to go home, as some members of the U.S. Congress recommend, is a non-starter.
To focus the immigration-reform debate, I would emphasize four points:
First, strengthen efforts to control illegal border crossings. Until the Border Patrol can be expanded and modernized to meet the need, resources such as the National Guard should be used.
Second, provide incentives to bring illegal immigrants into the sunshine. Forget about arbitrary, unnecessarily complicated categories linked to the length of unlawful residence, such as those in the U.S. Senate bill. If the United States is willing to grandfather in certain illegal immigrants, and penalize them by imposing appropriate fines and requiring payment of back taxes, it should provide that chance to all.
Third, shape opportunities to discourage illegal entry. A substantial guest-worker program for millions of people, if clearly defined, carefully crafted and diligently monitored, would hold much appeal.
Fourth, crack down on the employers of illegal immigrants with stiffer fines and jail time for business owners and senior corporate officers.
No immigration-reform bill will please everyone. But one that enhances border security, addresses the human plight of illegal immigrants, slows unlawful entries and forces businesses to become a bigger part of the solution would help this nation reach the necessary "delicate place."