Amnesty Follies

By Mark Krikorian on March 15, 2007

National Review Online, March 15, 2007

When the Democrats won in November, there was a sense that an illegal-alien amnesty and huge increases in future immigration were inevitable. Even Rep. Tom Tancredo, the uber-hawk on immigration, was taken in: "We will fight it, we will lose," he told the Washington Times. "It will go to the Senate, it will pass. The president will sign it. And it will happen quickly because that's one thing they know they can pass."

Sometimes it's good to be wrong.

This week, even as President Bush was pledging to the Mexican people that he would pursue their interests in working for an immigration bill, the political edifice of such a bill was falling apart.

Ted Kennedy and John McCain announced this week that they were giving up on crafting a new immigration bill and would instead revive the one approved last year by the (Republican) Senate Judiciary Committee (which was different in certain ways from the Hagel-Martinez amnesty finally passed by the Senate). There's going to be a lot more sound and fury in Congress over immigration, but, as Roll Call writes, "it still appears unlikely that comprehensive reforms will move out of the [Senate] chamber before electoral concerns kill the bill."

It's interesting to note that, despite all the talk of the Right-Left, odd-bedfellows coalition backing the amnesty push, it is partisan differences that are torpedoing the effort. Both the good and bad elements of each political party's character are proving to be stumbling blocks.

On one side, there is the Republicans' characteristic support for law and order, for enforcement, and for American sovereignty. To appeal to that sentiment in Republicans skeptical of amnesty, the Bush administration has permitted a limited increase in immigration enforcement, after many years of intentional neglect (by 2004, for instance, only three employers in the entire country had been fined for knowingly hiring illegal aliens). This has brought to the fore an unattractive aspect of the Democrats, who have been ferociously critical of all these enforcement efforts; most recently, Sen. Kennedy himself has been relentlessly lambasting the administration for having the temerity to raid a Massachusetts leather factory (that supplied the Army!) that was full of illegal aliens knowingly hired by management. Republicans are thus naturally skeptical that Democrats are sincere in their commitment to the sustained, muscular enforcement that they've promised in exchange for amnesty and increased immigration.

On the other side, one of the Democrats' more attractive qualities - their professed concern for the ordinary working stiff - has crashed into one of the Republicans' less-appealing qualities, namely, some industry groups' insatiable hunger for cheap labor, regardless of consequences. Here, it's interesting to note that this conflict is precisely because of the Democratic takeover in November. With Sen. Kennedy now chairing the immigration subcommittee, the AFL-CIO has departed from its recent practice and has actually lifted a finger to defend the interests of American workers. The labor federation is insisting that any future guestworkers receive the "prevailing wage," which is a higher standard than Sen. McCain, the White House, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce would accept; this means that employers would have to pay the foreign workers more than the employers would like, making it less attractive to import the workers in the first place. A requirement that guestworkers be paid the same as others would render the program "a nullity," according to a Chamber spokesman, "because employers wouldn't use it." Including such a requirement in the bill would have risked McCain jumping ship.

So Kennedy won't permit real enforcement and McCain won't permit real worker protections - nicely exposing the internal contradictions of the odd-bedfellows coalition.

To test how committed congressional Republicans still were to enforcement, the White House quietly floated another amnesty trial-balloon last week - and it crashed and burned, just like the others.

The goal appears to have been to gauge anti-amnesty sentiment, and to see if the push-back would be weak enough that the White House could plausibly pitch the inevitability argument, saying to GOP lawmakers that the anti-immigration wave had receded, making it safe to vote for legalizing the illegal population and increasing both "temporary" and permanent immigration.

The White House bragged to some members of Congress about having the House Republican leadership and some key Senate Republicans on board for a plan essentially the same as all the others - turn the illegals into "guestworkers," make them cross the border before turning right around to be admitted as "legal" immigrants, plus promise (for real this time - honestly!) to toughen enforcement.

If that was the goal, the White House was disappointed, because the pushback was fast and furious - hundreds of thousands of faxes and phone calls, actually strengthening the position of hawkish lawmakers in opposing the Bush-McCain-Kennedy approach. House Minority Whip Roy Blunt - perhaps the most improbable of the members whose support the White House was claiming - told an activist group "We weren't in a position to cave [to the administration on amnesty] in the first place, but we appreciate knowing of American citizens' support for our position."

It's unlikely that even amnesty proponents ever believed their "inevitability" spin. One humorous indication of this came last weekend at a meeting dominated by supporters of "comprehensive" reform; the Chamber of Commerce representative offered as evidence of the momentum behind their position the fact that phone calls on Capitol Hill were no longer running 400 to 1 against legalizing the illegals. Instead, they were down to "only" 200 to 1 against it!

Instead of the comprehensive amnesty extravaganza, the Democratic leadership in Congress, especially in the House, may push smaller measures, more likely to garner bipartisan support and less likely to cause major political fallout. Two bills like that are the Dream Act (an amnesty for illegal aliens who've graduated from U.S. high schools) and the AgJobs bill (an amnesty for illegal-alien farmworkers). Neither of these is good policy (AgJobs, in particular, could be quite large), and neither is guaranteed to pass, but they are a much safer way for the Democrats in Congress to deliver results for their high-immigration constituency groups. In effect, they are the immigration equivalent of Clinton's promotion of midnight basketball.

Even if both were to pass, they'd be little more than booby prizes. Any failure to enact a comprehensive amnesty extravaganza this year would represent a stinging defeat for the pro-amnesty crowd, exposing the shallow and insubstantial nature of the Right-Left alliance for more immigration. Really now, if you have the active support of a pro-amnesty president and a pro-amnesty Democratic leadership in Congress, plus the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Hispanic volkish groups like the National Council of La Raza, several major labor unions, and the editorial pages of most major newspapers, how can you possibly lose?

Rather than get complacent, now is the time for immigration hawks to go on the offensive. The president has, for political reasons, permitted an increase in immigration enforcement, including worksite raids, prosecution of repeat border-jumpers, Social Security scrutiny of worker records, and more. The political ploy appears to have failed, but the enforcement is actually working: some illegals are getting the message and going home on their own, fewer seem to be trying to sneak across the border, and factories emptied of illegals are raising wages and attracting previously ignored American workers.

Immigration hawks need to demand that this new enforcement not only be continued, but that it be stepped up. For instance, the Justice Department should formally release a 2002 legal opinion highlighting the inherent authority of states and localities to arrest immigration violators (see a redacted version of the memo here). Congress must authorize the IRS and Social Security to share information with immigration authorities on the millions of illegal aliens they have information on. The Democratic leadership cannot be allowed to drop down the memory hole the fencing that Congress overwhelmingly approved last year. And, in general, additional measures needed to achieve attrition through enforcement must be implemented.

The public prefers an "enforcement first" approach by 2 to 1 over "amnesty first." It's time they got what they want.

Mark Krikorian is Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies.