After Health Care, Amnesty?

By Mark Krikorian on April 8, 2010

National Review Online, April 8, 1010

Many on the left are demanding that the president take up amnesty for illegal immigrants as his next major goal. But it’s just not going to happen.

There has certainly been a lot of talk about moving on to immigration reform. Some 60,000 illegal aliens and their supporters staged a protest in Washington in March demanding amnesty. President Obama reiterated his “unwavering” commitment to legalizing the country’s 11 million illegal aliens. And a great fuss was made over a “blueprint” for an amnesty bill outlined in a Washington Post op-ed by Sens. Charles Schumer and Lindsey Graham.

But indicators suggesting that amnesty is a non-starter this year are far more numerous and relevant. First of all, the coalition that would be expected to support such a bill is deeply divided. In fact, the reason there isn’t an actual bill yet in the Senate (House speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she won’t move anything until the Senate acts) is that Big Business and Big Labor disagree fundamentally about how “future flows” of increased immigration should work.

Employer lobbyists insist on a “guest worker” period — essentially, a period of indentured servitude during which immigrants could not leave the employers who “sponsored” them — for those admitted under any expanded legal-immigration program. For these cheap-labor employers, it would defeat the whole purpose if workers were free to look for better jobs. The unions, on the other hand, have rejected the idea of importing captive labor, because of the resulting unfair competition with American workers and inevitable exploitation of the captive laborers.

At a recent panel I was on at Harvard Law School, business lobbyist Tamar Jacoby said the employer interests negotiating over the bill had gone all the way down to a mere one-year period of “provisional immigration” for new workers, while the SEIU representative said even one year of “indenture” (he used the word repeatedly) was too much. This is all the more interesting considering that the SEIU backed an indentured-labor program when it allied with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to push amnesty in 2007.

Perhaps related to this split is the fact that Schumer, chairman of the Senate immigration subcommittee, has not been able to find any Republican co-sponsors save Lindsey Graham. Not Susan Collins. Not Olympia Snowe. Not Richard Lugar. Not even John McCain, who was a leader in pushing amnesty last time — but who now is in a tough primary and is pretending to be a conservative again. And even Graham said, during the health-care debate, that amnesty would be dead if Senate Democrats used reconciliation to push through Obamacare.

What’s more, trying to pass amnesty using the same tactics as were seen in the health-care fight isn’t likely to be successful. Lots of Democrats cast hard votes for Obamacare, and the president wants to limit the electoral damage in November by pitching the supposed benefits of the new health-care law for the next six months. In that environment, why would anyone even think of piling on a new, even more controversial law?

And that’s just the politics of it. The policy argument for amnesty and increased immigration is pretty weak as well. When unemployment is near 10 percent, not much of the public is going to be enthusiastic about increased immigration and an amnesty that would let illegal aliens keep the jobs they now illegally occupy.

What’s more, claims that the government has the enforcement situation under control, which many Americans consider a precondition to amnesty, are nonsense. Schumer made such a claim last year; his approach, as described by the Washington Times: “Lawmakers have proved to the nation that they are serious about security. Now, he said, voters should be ready to accept a law that legalizes illegal immigrants and rewrites immigration rules.” Likewise, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) chief Janet Napolitano’s November 2009 address to the liberal think tank Center for American Progress was summarized by a reporter this way: “The federal government has done its work and now it’s time for Congress to pass a broad bill to legalize illegal immigrants.”

“Done its work”? Tell that to Robert Krentz — or rather to his survivors, since the lifelong Arizona border rancher was murdered last month, likely by an illegal alien using a smuggling route through Krentz’s ranch. The border “fencing” near his land touted in DHS publications is no fence at all — it’s a vehicle barrier, intended to slow vanloads of illegals and dope, not to keep out people. And even this fencing may be too much for this administration; the “virtual fence” of cameras, sensors, etc., all integrated with Border Patrol agents in the field, was offered as an alternative to a real fence, which was required by Congress but which neither the last administration nor this one really wanted. Now that the virtual fence has been shelved as well, there are no plans to cover those areas with genuine fencing.

That’s not all. The fiscal-year 2011 budget request includes a cut in the number of Border Patrol agents. The number of deportations under Obama’s policies had dropped so much during this fiscal year that the immigration service was compelled to institute quotas in an attempt to get the numbers back up to more politically defensible levels. Raids of worksites with lots of illegal workers have been replaced by audits of personnel records, carefully timed so agents won’t run across an actual illegal alien they might want to arrest.

And the icing on the anti-amnesty cake is the chaos in Mexico, a low-level civil war, really, in which vicious drug cartels are taking time out from battling each other to launch military-style attacks on the army and police, and now even American government personnel. The lack of adequate border security makes a mass influx of refugees from Mexico more likely and dims the public’s and lawmakers’ appetite for amnestying 11 million illegal aliens.

In fact, the talk of making a push for an immigration bill was intended at least partly, as Politico observed, “to keep Latino members from breaking out in full-scale revolt over the health care bill’s treatment of undocumented workers.” Now that the health-care bill has been signed, promises made to the Hispanic Caucus have passed their expiration date.

A fear expressed by some Republicans on the Hill is that if Democrats get shellacked in November, they’ll come back for a lame-duck session and ram through amnesty on a party-line vote, with retiring or defeated members free to disregard public opinion. And the Democrats are clearly considering it; Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey told a home state newspaper last week:

I think the time to get it done is in November, right after the elections. I’m being very pragmatic. I think there are a bunch of people who are retiring who would cast votes [because] their heart and their intellect tell them it is the right thing, but their politics might have told them no. They are free to cast votes that we might not normally get.

Eternal vigilance is, of course, required to prevent such an eventuality, but I’m not sure the threat is serious. Lawmakers have sense enough to know that a lame-duck amnesty bill, in the wake of big Republican gains in Congress, would be an even more ripe target for repeal, or at least de-funding, than Obamacare.

Two final observations. The fact that amnesty is not going to pass this year just means that we’re going to avoid a catastrophic mistake; it doesn’t mean that Congress will act, as it should in such a slow job market, to reduce the level of immigration. Even in this environment, the immigration debate remains stuck in the “legal-good/illegal-bad” rut that has circumscribed public discussion of the issue for far too long.

And this: Liberal Washington Post columnist Harold Meyerson asked some activists what they’d do if the president didn’t follow through and make a big push for amnesty. Here’s how they responded:

“We will go into the field,” says [Rep. Luis] Gutierrez, “like the civil rights movement and the suffragists did.” “We will escalate,” says Gustavo Torres of Casa de Maryland, “to civil disobedience.”

Civil disobedience — by illegal aliens. The chances of an amnesty passing may be slim, but the show sure should be entertaining.