Starting next week, the Senate will begin its most important debate on immigration and border policy since the 1986 amnesty program granted legal residence to almost 3 million undocumented workers.

The debate — which will get under way in the Senate Judiciary Committee and then extend for months on the congressional floor — could culminate in sweeping, comprehensive and even liberalized policy, or it could veer sharply toward only more enforcement and policing efforts. A third possibility, perhaps the most likely, is that in this polarized election year, with few pols willing to stick their necks out, there will be no change at all.

Several factors over the past few years have conspired and converged to make this crunch time for national immigration policy: pressure from the business lobby to regularize and legalize a flow of low-cost labor; President Bush’s call for a guest-worker program that might also generate increased Latino support for the GOP; the ongoing failure of current policy to stem the migrant flow from the south; border-security concerns in the wake of 9/11; and a rapidly growing and already-record 11 million or more undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.

“That’s the real elephant in the room,” says Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.). “Those 11 million people and how we’re going to deal with them.”

On one side of the debate is an unprecedented bipartisan coalition stretching from George W. Bush, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, John McCain and other pro-business conservatives on the right to organized labor, Teddy Kennedy and pro-immigrant advocacy groups on the left. This unusual alliance of forces agrees that tighter enforcement on the border itself is necessary but also that border control will never be achieved unless some widened channel for legal immigration is put in place and some mechanism created to legalize those already here and working.

“I’ve come full circle on this,” says Grijalva, himself the son of Mexican braceros. “I used to oppose a guest-worker program; now I’m for it because we have made sure there are sufficient guarantees of labor rights.” Other liberals are also supporting guest-worker schemes because they see them as the first and crucial step toward acknowledging some status for the currently undocumented.

On the other side of the debate is the populist right, stretching from the Minutemen to inflammatory talk radio, and including a militant anti-immigration caucus of several dozen House members. A year ago, these so-called restrictionist forces seemed in retreat, on the defensive. Now, they are on the charge. Last December the House passed a draconian measure carried by Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner that would establish felony criminal penalties for illegal aliens and all who in any way aid or employ them. Sensenbrenner’s bill also calls for an additional 700 miles of border walls and doesn’t include any form of guest-worker or immigrant-legalization program.

Most political analysts agree that the Senate will come up with a more liberal, realistic measure, but just how much is anyone’s guess. The most comprehensive reform program is being carried jointly by McCain and Kennedy, and is supported by Grijalva and some key Republicans (including Arizona’s Jeff Flake) in the House. But there are at least three or four other competing Senate proposals, and some of those are closer to enforcement-only solutions.

The most volatile factor in the coming debate is just what influence midterm politicking will have on the process. Some right-wing strategists are urging Republican candidates to run on a red-meat, anti-immigration, shut-down-the-border platform. They point to the landmark 1994 re-election campaign of Governor Pete Wilson, who came from behind and held on to his post by bashing immigrants. Other Republican strategists say that same election cycle sparked a Latino backlash that pretty much devastated the California Republican Party. They argue there’s nothing to be won in November if Republicans run against immigration. The Democrats, for their part, remain mostly mum on the issue. Worse, leading Southwest Democratic governors — New Mexico’s Bill Richardson and Arizona’s Janet Napolitano — have openly pandered to the restrictionists by declaring their border zones “disaster areas,” but they’ve shown no real political leadership in advancing the policy-reform debate.

Congressman Grijalva, meanwhile, whose sights were set much higher a year ago, is now taking a longer view — about the only reasonable stand pro-immigration forces can take. “It’s really important that this issue doesn’t get political traction on the right this fall,” he says. “If we can ‘stabilize’ the issue, make it more manageable, then maybe we can make some real progress in 2008.”

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