President Bush has re-launched his drive to win passage of comprehensive immigration-law reform, very likely his last chance at a major legislative initiative.

The White House has advanced a detailed plan, but one the White House stops short of labeling the president’s, saying it is a draft and intended to put ideas on the table for discussion. It’s unlikely opponents will be fooled.

The Bush draft calls for stepped-up border security, tougher enforcement of laws against hiring undocumented workers and a guest-worker program. But the real sticking point is a path for the 12 million illegal immigrants here now to gain legal residence and eventually citizenship.

Bush would grant illegal workers here now three-year renewable visas at a cost of $3,500 each time. To become legal permanent residents, recipients of these “Z visas” would have to return to their homeland, pay a $10,000 fine and apply for re-entry through a U.S. consulate.

While these provisions are fairly onerous, it’s doubtful they will mollify immigration hard-liners who will construe it as a form of amnesty. The hard-liners say they will consider a path to legal residence once the borders are secure, but such security can never be 100 percent. While raids on workplaces have been stepped up, they’ve been seen as controversial and disruptive and have produced a catalog of hard-luck stories that only makes the government look heartless.

The Senate is more accommodating than the House on reform and it will go first with a bill now being negotiated between the Bush administration and Republicans, to be voted on at the end of May.

The problem is the House. Democratic support for Bush-style reform is less now than it was in the last session when Republicans tried to make it radioactive. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly has said that to win passage of a comprehensive bill — one that is more than just bigger fences and tougher enforcement — Bush will have to deliver around 70 Republican votes.

Bush showed real political courage on immigration reform, but his standing with congressional Republicans has dwindled so far that courage might not be enough and, like other of his initiatives that have stalled — the Iraq war, Social Security reform, tax reform — immigration may have to wait for the next president.


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