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Originally published June 11, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 8, 2007 at 11:00 AM


Kate Riley / Times staff columnist

Everybody loses when immigration debate turns mean

The Senate immigration bill crashed Thursday after opponents loaded it up with enough bad stuff and stripped away enough...

The Senate immigration bill crashed Thursday after opponents loaded it up with enough bad stuff and stripped away enough good stuff to make it unpalatable even to some of its supporters.

What looked like the best vehicle for an Evel Knievel-style jump across a deep political divide fell short when a motion to close debate in the U.S. Senate failed 45-50. The vote prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., to say he was moving on to energy legislation. He might be open to considering immigration later this year.

The Senate must not write off this effort as totaled. It would be utterly irresponsible for the federal government not to reform the nation's immigration system, which is so broken it's a joke.

Immigration raids go on at beef processors and laundries; families are being separated; the harvest is moving into full swing with too few workers; and people — workers livings in the shadows and employers with work orders — are desperate for certainty. One in 20 workers is believed to be in the United States without legal authority.

"It was such a painful week, because it was getting harder as an immigration advocate, a human-rights advocate, to support it," said Pramila Jayapal, executive director of the Seattle-based Hate Free Zone. She followed the raft of amendments being voted up or down on the Senate floor.

On Friday, Jayapal, weary from late nights watching CSPAN, grasped for a word to describe some of the more unsavory efforts to amend the bill, including an English-only provision and setting an unreasonable cutoff date for legal applications even though people already paid to begin the process.

She settled on "mean."

In a separate conversation, so did Karen Narasaki, president of the Washington, D.C.,-based Asian American Justice Center. She returned to her native Seattle this week to teach a seminar for her old law firm, Perkins Coie, and run a fundraiser, while keeping in close touch with her office and allies for updates.

Though neither Narasaki nor Jayapal was thrilled with every aspect of the bill, they each welcomed the opportunity presented by the unusual negotiations between Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., on the left and Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., on the right and President George W. Bush. Their resulting "compromise" bill had a little something for everyone to like and a little something for every side to hate. But it was something.

A critical feature of the bill provided a way for workers here illegally to gain legal status and an opportunity to apply for citizenship by paying fines — a favorite of liberals.

But the bill also had something for conservatives wanting ultimately to limit legal immigration. The bill would reverse a four-decade U.S. policy of giving immigration preference to family members of legal residents. While out there as a cockeyed proposal, this was never part of the serious efforts toward immigration-reform legislation the past several years and through last year's high-profile rallies.

Talk about cynical: OK, we'll legalize the workers here illegally. But we're not going to let them bring in their parents or siblings, and make it harder to bring in spouses and children.

"Legal immigration became collateral damage in this whole debate," Narasaki said. "We want your sweat, but we don't want your family."

Narasaki says this is a particularly disappointing change for the Asian community she represents. Though people entering illegally from Mexico and Central America comprise most of the estimated 12 million people here without authority, about 10 percent hail from Asian countries.

The aftermath of the Senate wreck created pessimism among many immigration advocates last week.

Sadly, it seems the only political consensus is that the current system does not work. But there will be no winners on either side of this issue if the immigration system is not overhauled.

Kate Riley's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Her e-mail address is

To hear a podcast of this column that includes a Q&A with the author go to:

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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