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Redefining Illegal Migrants

High on President Bush's to-do list before last Sept. 11 was working with Mexico to resolve the issue of having 8 million illegal immigrants in the US.

Mr. Bush may be forced to take up that task again soon since the Democratic leader in the House, Richard Gephardt, has staked out his solution to the problem – a solution clearly aimed at winning more Hispanic voters in November.

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Mr. Gephardt plans to introduce a bill next month that would grant legal status to about 1 out of 4 illegal immigrants.

That's the proportion that would meet his eligibility requirements for "earned legalization." They must have lived in the US for five years, worked for at least two years, paid their taxes, and have a squeaky- clean police record (other than their immigration status).

When Mr. Bush hinted at a similar "regularization" in 2001, he was booed back into doing nothing by those opposed to "rewarding" lawbreakers with US residency.

Let's be clear what's going on here. Democrats and Republicans are vying for the rising Hispanic vote, which could make all the difference in the 2004 presidential race.

But, politics aside, the Gephardt proposal should be taken seriously, if only to reassess the damage such a partial amnesty might do to the rule of law, let alone the incentive it would provide for more migrants to cross the border in hopes of becoming "regular." The US saw waves of new migration after a 1986 general amnesty.

One argument made in favor of this bill is that it would help US law enforcement better sort out terrorists concealed among illegal migrant populations. But since the proposal would leave some 6 million people in legal limbo, that argument has its limits.

On the other policy extreme, an even tougher border crackdown on illegal crossings could lead to increasingly desperate efforts to cross the border and more deaths in desert areas, possibly further upsetting friendly ties with Mexican President Vicente Fox. And the Border Patrol already is stretched thin with its new antiterrorism duties.

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Illegal immigrants who have put down roots in the US and have become part of the economy need a resolution of their status. And many employers remain eager to hire inexpensive, often diligent, Mexican workers.

The best compromise might be some sort of Gephardt-Bush plan that lets longtime illegal migrants return to Mexico and be first in line for a visa to come back to the US under a temporary worker program. That program could include a transition to permanent residency or citizenship.

The logistics of some 2 million people or more crisscrossing the border would be difficult. But so is living with a massive, unresolved migrant problem. After November, politicians should become leaders on this issue, and resolve it sensibly.