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Thursday, July 12, 2007 | Immigration into America is out of control. People enter the country and stay at will, a practice which created an illegal population of 16 to 18 million people over the past two decades. A quarter of those people were legalized in the 1980s and 1990s, leaving another estimated 12 million illegal immigrants today, with the number growing. Every poll shows that Americans want their government to take control of this situation.

But government refuses to act. While other wealthy nations with similar problems take measures to stem similar (though smaller) tides and deal with those illegal immigrants already on hand, Washington sits on its hands. A bill in the Senate last month — laboriously brought up for a vote after months of negotiations — died despite a presidential visit to Congress to lobby for it. Presidents rarely go to Capitol Hill for that very reason: to lose a vote after such an effort is to be naked.

We must now wait until at least 2009 when a new Congress and president are in office. Given existing rates, another 1 million or so illegal immigrants will have arrived by then. Judged by the three most recent immigration laws, those of 1986, 1990 and 1996 — all failures by any reckoning — the 2009 (2010? 2011?) bill, assuming there is one, will be as hollow as the others. You have to go back to 1965 for an immigration law of any consequence, and most of the consequences of that one were unintentional.

There are various subjects one could choose today to demonstrate the dysfunction of our federal system as it enters its third century, but immigration is probably the best. Congress cannot give us an immigration bill that addresses the core issues because the 50 states cannot agree. Parse the various Senate votes last month and you find wildly differing state points of view.

California, with its 40 million people (and at least 3 million illegal immigrants, nobody knows for sure) desperately needs a solution, as do Arizona, Florida, New York, Illinois and Pennsylvania — all states with substantial illegal immigrant populations. Both senators from each of those states supported the final bill last month, flawed as it was. The bitter resistance came from the Deep South and the Northern plains, where few illegal immigrants choose to go, and senators can ride their high horses.

A few years ago, an Iowa state commission — representing the 2.7 million souls who dwell in that worthy farm state (2.6 million of them white) — asked the governor to declare Iowa an “immigration enterprise zone” and petition Washington to exempt Iowa from immigration quotas. With many young Iowans leaving the farm, the idea was to bring in immigrants from wherever they might come — Mexico, Haiti, Cambodia, El Salvador — as long as they committed to stay in Iowa.

One sees the problem: Haitians might not appreciate the Iowa winters and head for Florida. If we could divide our 12 million illegal immigrants over 50 states — 240,000 per state — they would hardly be noticed, but that’s not how the system works.

Seldom has Washington shown such fatuity as during last month’s Senate votes. Forty-eight hours after headlines trumpeted “Senate Passes Sweeping Immigration Bill,” the bill was defeated. Eighteen senators who voted aye on Tuesday voted nay on Thursday. The final vote, 46 to 53, was 16 votes short of the 60 needed to go forward — though 10 of those nay votes actually favored the bill, switching into opposition to fool home opinion when it was clear 60 votes could not be obtained.

Immigration is not our only example of spectator government. On the Iraq war, global warming and health care, it is the same story. While other nations address these issues, Congress spins its wheels. The president, ostracized and powerless, merely postures. Self-interest rules; the national interest is abandoned. We can only envy the British who, without even an election, rid themselves of a discredited leader.

It’s been clear for years that the Iraq invasion was a catastrophic mistake. Most of the so-called “coalition allies” are long gone, and those leaders who most whooped up the war — in Spain and Britain — are gone as well. But Washington drowns in inertia. A few honest Republicans speak out, but most are content “privately” to oppose the war while “publicly” supporting it — a cruel game for those fighting and dying.

Fecklessness has reached a point that when the judiciary shows some gumption and convicts a Bush official (Lewis Libby) of crimes related to the war, the president lets him off. Among other war architects, Dick Cheney escapes by claiming he’s not part of the executive, and Paul Wolfowitz is rewarded with the presidency of the World Bank (only to be forced out when the smell became too great).

It is little different on the other large issues of our time — global warming and health care. Other nations act, but America declines, abstains, turns up its nose as if the sick didn’t matter and we didn’t share the planet with the rest of the world.

Some of our states act, but Washington does nothing. We have a government without responsibility, raising the question whether we have become a people without responsibility.

On immigration, everything points to a crisis: growing numbers of illegal immigrants, inability to staunch the flow, deaths and murders along the border, proliferation of vigilante groups, growing numbers of “citizen children,” growing burdens on some state governments, increasing prison populations, increasing confusion between legal and illegal immigrants, degraded relations with emigration nations such as Mexico.

As to the Senate bill itself, yes it was a mess, a perfect example of American democracy in paralysis. Britain is introducing a national ID card that will make it impossible for illegal immigrants to obtain work. France, which already has an ID card, is about to pass a law stiffening family reunification — one of the core issues on which Congress could not agree last month.

Identity cards are the solution to illegal immigration. No card, no work. But Congress doesn’t like identity cards. Not the American way, we hear. The American way, as we enter our third century of existence, is to do nothing.

James O. Goldsborough has written on foreign affairs for four decades, both from the United States and abroad, where he worked as a foreign correspondent for The New York Herald Tribune, International Herald Tribune and Newsweek magazine for 14 years, reporting from more than 40 countries. Visit his website here. Submit a letter to the editor here.

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