Dig Director Marc Cooper has reported on international and domestic American politics for dozens of publications, and is Senior Fellow for Border Justice at USC Annenberg?s Institute for Justice and Journalism. He is the author of several books, including a memoir about his time as translator for Chile's...
Photo Border Patrol Agent E.L. Spencer, right, and US Customs Border Protection Agent Tom Judd check a rail crossing at the border fence separating Tijuana, Mexico and San Diego, California on March 22, 2005, in San Diego, Calif. In December, the House passed a bill calling for 700 miles of fencing along the 2,000 mile border.


This Thursday (March 16), mostly under the media radar, the U.S. Senate inched closer to what some observers call a turning point in long-delayed comprehensive immigration reform.

Just when it looked as if all efforts were on the verge of collapse, the Senate Judiciary Committee apparently agreed on proposals that would offer the 12 million undocumented workers and their families living in the U.S. the possibility of earning permanent residence and citizenship.Senators present at Thursday's meeting have told the media that there is now a voting majority to back the so-called McCain-Kennedy measures, which are, without question, the most enlightened of all pending immigration proposals.

Republicans have been bitterly divided over this issue and until Thursday's meeting it appeared that the close-the-border "restrictionists" had the upper hand.

They still might. The Senate Judiciary Committee will not formally vote on Thursday's agreement until after a week-long recess. And, if passed, it will then come before the full Senate for approval. If the measures get that far they still would have to be reconciled with a draconian bill last December by the House that omits all guest worker and legalization plans.

Further complicating matters, Republican Sen. Bill Frist proposed a completely new bill on Thursday, March 16, that does not include a "guest worker" provision--which many conservatives consider amnesty for undocumented workers. This late entry by Frist caught both Democrats and Republicans by surprise, and although it is likely to fall by the wayside, it will nevertheless probably remain the fallback position for the more conservative members of Congress when the debate reaches the full floor.

However, assuming some version of the McCain-Kennedy bill survives both houses, the most important aspect of the Judiciary Committee's apparent agreement is that it, at least, acknowledges the existence of this hidden and growing immigrant workforce and the need to legalize it.

Here's my report, filed a few days ago, on the full background to this debate:

Police in Southern California's Orange County recently raided a day labor center and hauled off a number of immigrant workers in order to have their legal status checked. In Texas, sheriffs are banding together to guard the U.S.-Mexico border, doing an end run around the Border Patrol.

In Arizona, the Democratic governor is dispatching more National Guard units to the state's southern border to offer "support" to the Border Patrol. In Washington, D.C., the Republican-controlled House has passed a draconian measure calling for the construction of a 700-mile, triple-wall fence at the border. Meanwhile, in Chicago, a hastily organized pro-immigrant rally burgeoned into a street demonstration of 100,000 or more.

Indeed, elbowing aside more high-profile issues such as the war in Iraq, the NSA spying scandal and the Abramoff corruption swamp, illegal immigration and proposed comprehensive immigration reform have finally floated to the top of the national legislative agenda.

Without much public notice, for the first time in 20 years the U.S. Senate this month is finally debating legislation that could radically change the ways our country deals with immigrants and enforces the laws on the border for decades to come. It's a moment that reform advocates -- from big business to big labor, from church groups to civil liberties organizations -- have long been been fighting for. The Senate leadership has given the Judiciary Committee until March 27 to present a bill to be voted on by the whole body. Once approved, that measure would be reconciled with the House measure passed last December and move to the president's desk for his signature.

But just as the Senate finally begins its historic considerations, there's a sense of foreboding creeping in among reform advocates. As the debate heats ups it seems permeated and distorted by a number of prevailing myths that threaten to derail any forward and much-need movement.