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Little progress on immigration Special interests on either side hinder the push for a fair policy

As fouled up as our nation's immigration system is, it is hard to think of a reform that wouldn't make it worse. For someone. The result is years of political posturing that often brings lofty words to the lips of our leaders but changes no laws and saves no lost souls.

President Bush was heavy on the subject the other day, addressing a group of Border Patrol agents at one of their newly built stations and calling for reforms that, in addition to securing the border, find legal ways for some illegal immigrants to become legal without offering anything that is, or will be derided as, amnesty. Yet such a high-minded reform has little chance of becoming reality, given the shifting political sands and even the president's seeming lack of commitment to his own stated principles.

Bush rightly decries both extremes of the debate -- ship them all out vs. let them all come and stay. But there is much pressure on politicians, especially on those running for president, to be able to claim both humanity and toughness, either simultaneously or alternatively, depending on which audience they are addressing. Plans claim to open a legal path to residency and citizenship even as they erect so many hurdles along those paths as to make them unrealistic for most people in that situation. Such hurdles include heavy fines and back taxes or requirements that people leave the country and wait for what could be years to come back again. Thus the status quo remains.

But the status of anything won't be as firmly quo as our immigration laws have become unless it benefits someone. And while it could be argued that the primary beneficiaries of our porous border and don't-ask-don't-tell hiring laws are the illegal workers themselves, those immigrants are not powerful enough to dictate government policy.

It is the national economy, an impersonal force that is hard to lobby against, that pushes and pulls and protects the constant flow of undocumented workers into the United States to pick our vegetables, slaughter our pigs, clean our hotel rooms, build our houses and care for our children. The businesses large and small that benefit from that illegal labor, either by hiring it or by seeing demand for wages drop due to excess workers, are the forces that, publicly or otherwise, stand against any meaningful immigration reform.

Removing the millions of illegal aliens from the U.S. labor pool, if it were even physically possible, would make native workers more expensive, which is good for the workers but generally thought to be bad for the employers. Allowing the illegals to stay, but bringing them out of the shadows, would make them eligible for market wages, overtime pay, benefits and health and safety standards. And it would put them on a more level playing field with native and legal workers, but would cost their employers more, too. No wonder this problem never gets solved.

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