Fool Me Twice, Shame on Me: The McCain/Kennedy Amnesty

By Mark Krikorian on May 13, 2005

National Review Online, May 13, 2005

The McCain/Kennedy amnesty bill has been unveiled, and it's the same hoax we've fallen for before.

Like the telemarketer who bilks a widow and then comes back in a different guise to charge a fee to "help" her get the original money back, the anti-borders crowd created today's immigration crisis and is now offering as a solution the very policies that got us in this mess in the first place.

Ordinarily the introduction of one more bill wouldn't warrant much attention on Capitol Hill. Each year, congressmen introduce thousands of pieces of legislation, often merely to spark discussion on an issue or placate a noisy constituency. Few ever make any progress.

But the McCain/Kennedy bill (called the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act) has a good deal of muscle behind it, and in any case is the only amnesty-guestworker bill that will have a significant coalition pushing it. Yesterday's press conference included not only senators McCain and Kennedy, but also Brownback and Lieberman, plus Republican representatives Flake and Kolbe from Arizona, and Illinois Democrat Gutierrez. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce backed it, as did the National Restaurant Association, the Service Employees International Union, the American Immigration Lawyers Association, the National Immigration Forum, as well as writer Tamar Jacoby.

The essence of the bill is the same as the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act: amnesty up front for millions of illegal aliens in exchange for paltry promises of future enforcement -- promises that will quickly be abandoned. But in 1986, many people didn't know that yet. There was a sense then that the law was a grand bargain -- closing the back door by prohibiting the employment of illegal immigrants (for the first time ever), but tying up the loose ends of prior policy missteps with an amnesty.

But in the words of the old Russian saying, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

The amnesty part works this way: The former illegal aliens are re-labeled as legal workers; after a six-year period of indenture, payment of some fines, criminal and security background checks, and an English and civics test, they (and their families) get green cards. This is similar to how the last amnesty worked, except for the term of indenture; the 1986 law amnestied those who had already entered the country before a certain date, some four years prior to the law's passage. Thus the McCain/Kennedy proposal is a prospective amnesty, as opposed to the 1986 measure, which was a retrospective amnesty.

The guestworker part of the bill provides for 400,000 new foreign workers a year, with an escalator clause if businesses snap up the cheap, docile labor faster than expected. These "temporary" workers would have to serve only a four-year period of indenture before they, too, would get green cards. To accommodate them, legal immigration quotas would be increased by close to half a million a year.

The enforcement sections of the bill are laughably thin, making the amnesty-in-exchange-for-enforcement claim even less plausible than it would be otherwise. The part on border security is almost a parody of a Washington cop-out: It orders up yet another "National Strategy for Border Security" (how about picking one of the previous strategies and just enforcing it?), plus an advisory committee, two coordination plans, and various other reports and programs and multilateral partnerships. It's like John Kerry going duck hunting: He's wearing the right outfit, but he's obviously insincere.

And the interior enforcement provisions seem intended to actually hobble enforcement. Though the law provides for a system to verify employment eligibility, it instructs the Social Security administration to reinvent the wheel rather than simply expand on the successful pilot system the immigration service has been developing for over a decade. The job of auditing firms for compliance with the immigration law would also be taken away from immigration agents, and given instead to the Labor Department, perhaps the only agency even less capable of doing its job. And the bill specifically says that it does not give state and local cops any new authority to enforce immigration law.

Despite the long list of interest groups behind the legislation, the McCain/Kennedy amnesty's odds aren't good. John Cornyn, chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee, doesn't like it, and the Senate recently defeated a more narrow amnesty proposal from senators Craig and Kennedy (funny how that name keeps popping up). On the House side, there's a new pro-borders majority among Republicans, energized by their victory with the Real ID Act, that will fight the amnesty tooth and nail. And the White House is uttering sweet nothings, standing back out of concern that supporting this bill, which is an amnesty even by the president's slippery definition, could cause a "read my lips"-style blowup among conservatives.

Perhaps most important, the public is becoming increasingly concerned about immigration. The issue is seldom among the top two or three issues for voters, but that seems to be changing. Recurrent reports of terrorists and super-violent gang members exploiting our broken immigration system are finally getting people's attention. The way the Minuteman Project border-watch program in Arizona resonated on talk radio, its spread to other states, and its adoption by prominent politicians like California Gov. Schwarzenegger are all signs that the McCain/Kennedy amnesty bill may well be the last gasp of the anti-borders crowd.

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