A Third Way on Immigration Reform

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In politics, a wedge issue is a terrible thing to waste. That's why the conventional thinking is that Congressional Republicans will run out the clock and not touch immigration reform until after the midterm elections.

But not if Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., has anything to say about it. The three-term Congressman has become a major player in this debate by devising a commonsense compromise that, Pence believes, still has a chance to break the legislative logjam between competing House and Senate bills.

"I think there is both time and opportunity to come up with a third way," Pence told me over the phone last week.

There is time, but not much. Congress has only about two weeks of scheduled legislative days left before it adjourns for the fall campaign.

We could have predicted that an issue as emotional and as contentious as immigration reform would go down to the wire. But what was not so easy to predict was that Pence, despite his solid conservative credentials, would become a thorn in the sides of some of his fellow conservatives.

To listen to the rhetoric of Republican hardliners who seem to find as much value in a sound bite as in a solution, and others who pander to nativists, Pence has gone soft on illegal immigrants. He did it by coming up with a plan that House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner — another key figure in the immigration debate — uncharitably described this week as "amnesty lite."

Rubbish. That characterization is untrue — and unfair.

And no one knows that better than Sensenbrenner. A few weeks ago, during a meeting with the Chairman, I asked him how he would define amnesty. He settled on this: "excusing the illegal entry and illegal presence in the country through the payment of a fine [in exchange for] ultimate permanent residency or U.S. citizenship."

Sensenbrenner thinks that illegal immigrants have to go home. And what do you know? Under the Pence plan, thatís exactly what they'd have to do.

For the first two years after the plan is adopted, the emphasis would be securing the border with more border patrol agents and enhanced technology. Then comes a guest-worker program that would require illegal immigrants in the United States to briefly return to their home countries to register at privately run centers where they would be issued work visas that could be renewed every two years for up to 12 years. For the next five years, they'd be given a more permanent visa. And then, after 17 years in the program, participants could apply for U.S. citizenship.

The Congressman gained an important ally in Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, who has added her name to the plan. It was Hutchison who suggested that participation be limited to those who come from countries that partner with the United States in the NAFTA and CAFTA trade agreements.

Now Pence may have picked up the backing of an even more valuable ally: President Bush. The President met with Pence this summer and, according to White House officials, came away "intrigued" with the Hutchison-Pence plan.