As I listened to Sen. Chuck Schumer's (D-N.Y.) speech Tuesday on the Senate floor, some famous words of the poet Robert Browning came to mind: "Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"
Sen. Schumer seems to think that comprehensive immigration reform should serve the same purpose — inspiring sweeping promises that have scant chance of being fulfilled.
Schumer, the driving force of the Gang of Eight, is promising that their bill will seal off U.S. worksites from illegal immigrants. He has absolute confidence in its proposal for worksite verification, which would be a more ambitious version of the current E-Verify system.
Said Schumer, "Even if someone is able to get here illegally or overstays their visa, their main goal for being here, working, will be impossible after the bill is passed. ... If we eliminate the jobs magnet, we'll eliminate illegal immigration."
The New York Democrat indicated no concern that the system would be subject to simple evasion or outright fraud. He made no promises of vigilant congressional oversight to ensure that it will function as he has promised. He has faith that it will work. He closes his eyes and believes.
Schumer offered a tale of the current dysfunction that his reform intends to cure:
I ride my bicycle around Brooklyn early in the morning. I see on various street corners congregating young men, mainly. And some guy on a truck comes over and says, "I will give you $15 to work on roofing on a few houses I am building." I guarantee he doesn't say he will pay them $2 above minimum wage and give them an hour off for lunch. Those illegal immigrants are driving down the wage base, particularly in lower skilled places.
Under the reform bill, he declared, "That will end." He appeared to believe it.
The senator's speech included other moments of naive faith. Most prominent was his declaration of faith in the technological big fix. The bill would fill the skies above the borderlands with drones that would detect anyone crossing the border illegally, he said. And the Border Patrol would be able to send out the agents needed to make the arrest.
The senator's sweeping promises of the big fix would be more understandable if history hadn't already made him a central figure in the story of failed immigration reforms.
In 1986, Schumer was serving in the House of Representatives; he was the architect of a proposal that was essential to passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act.
He broke a stalemate over farmworkers with an idea to provide a special amnesty for workers who had labored 90 days in the fields. It was labeled as "a compromise" between growers and labor unions. Dissenters denounced it as a "super amnesty" above and beyond the legislation's general amnesty for illegal immigrants who had been in the country at least five years.
But the Schumer plan saved IRCA and sent it on to a signing ceremony at the White House. There President Reagan declared: "Future generations of Americans will be thankful for our efforts to humanely regain control of our borders and thereby preserve the value of one of the most sacred possessions of our people: American citizenship."
The Schumer plan led to massive fraud, spawning an industry in which unscrupulous labor contractors and employers charged $1,000 to write a letter affirming that the holder had worked 90 days in the fields. In some instances, amnesty applicants claimed that they had picked strawberries with a ladder.
Massive amnesties provide powerful incentives for fraud on a grand scale. Sen. Schumer, determined to put his name on another sweeping reform bill, seems unconcerned.