Another “No Amnesty” Amnesty

It was a nice try, at least.

By Mark Krikorian on June 13, 2006

National Review Online, June 13, 2006

It's funny how every new "middle ground" on immigration is in the same place as the old ones.

The latest "middle ground" proposal comes from Rep. Mike Pence (R., Ind.). Pence, who has solid conservative credentials as head of the House Republican Study Committee, offered what he billed as "The Real Rational Middle Ground on Immigration Reform" at a Heritage Foundation speech last month. Since there's no actual bill to look at, we have to judge from Rep. Pence's speech and other materials what the program would be like.

It starts out well enough. In seeking an alternative to amnesty, on the one hand, and mass deportations, on the other, he laid out a four-step plan. The first step is securing the border, and he included the entire enforcement bill passed by the House in December (with two minor modifications) in his measure.

Step two is to reject amnesty. That also sounds good, until you remember that Senators Kennedy and McCain also deny their amnesty plan is an amnesty. As do Senators Hagel and Martinez. And President Bush. They all deny that they support amnesty because, as the president says, the only thing that constitutes amnesty is "automatic citizenship," whatever that is.

Pence has a broader definition of amnesty:

Amnesty is allowing people whose first act in America was an illegal act to get right with the law without leaving the country. Allowing twelve million illegal aliens to stay in our country instead of leaving and coming back legally is amnesty, no matter if fines or back taxes are paid, or how it is otherwise dressed-up or spun by its proponents. The only way to deal with these twelve million people is to insist that they leave the country and come back legally if they have a job awaiting them.

This is exactly the same as the "touchback" gimmick in the Senate amnesty bill, which would require illegal aliens who have been here between two and five years to cross the border to be enrolled in the permanent "temporary" worker program and then immediately return to their homes and jobs.

That brings us to the third step: the guestworker amnesty. Yes, amnesty. Or, if you prefer, legalization. Or normalization. Or regularization. Or earned adjustment. Or whatever is the euphemism du jour. The fact remains that the guestworker program in the Pence plan is explicitly designed to allow all illegal aliens to keep their jobs and domiciles in the United States without interruption.

The congressman is quite explicit on this point. In explaining the need for speedy processing of the guestworkers, he says:

No employer in America wants to lose employees for an extended amount of time. No worker who is earning money to feed and clothe a family can afford to be off the job for long. - And, an illegal alien currently employed in America will be willing to take a quick trip across the border to come back outside of the shadows and in a job where he does not fear a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In fact, I envision employers working with placement agencies to make sure that their long-time illegal employees get their paperwork processed, background checks performed, and visas issued so that they will be back on the job quickly.

In the 1950s, this process was called - in official U.S. government publications - "drying out the wetbacks." Whether it's called an amnesty instead, or is given some other label, the point is to let all illegal aliens stay legally.

But maybe the amnesty is time-limited? And in fact, part of Pence's "no amnesty" claim is that the guestworker visa would be limited to a total of six years. This would be an encouraging requirement, except that, in the congressman's words, "At that point, the guest should decide whether to return home or enter the separate process of seeking citizenship." If legal immigration quotas are to remain in force, then these formerly illegal, now "temporary," workers will have to leave, en masse, six years from now, which is precisely the mass deportation the congressman said (correctly) is unworkable. On the other hand, if these workers will be able to receive permanent residency outside the current limits, as they would be under the Senate amnesty bill, then this plan is the very "path to citizenship" that Rep. Pence made a big show of condemning. It's unclear which of these is true, but it's undeniable that the plan is either dishonest or amateurish.

Step four really takes the cake: a promise - really, truly, cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die - to enforce the ban on hiring illegals in the future. Pence himself says that since every illegal alien will be legalized, employers wouldn't need to hire illegals, but that enforcement will be phased in nonetheless. This is exactly the bait-and-switch Congress perpetrated in 1986 - legalization first, enforcement later (i.e., never). It is for this reason that the House, animated by a "fool me twice, shame on me" skepticism, has insisted on "Enforcement First."

There are plenty of other reasons to dismiss the Pence plan as unserious: by not calling for an end to automatic citizenship at birth, it makes the "temporary" claim meaningless; his gimmick of having the private sector screen the workers misses the point that they will still need to use (and receive security clearances for access to) the very same databases that the FBI and Department of Homeland Security use now; and to get "temporary" workers, employers will merely have to attest that they tried to hire Americans, rather than using objective measures to determine need, like rising wages or low unemployment in the specific occupation in question.

In fact, I didn't write about this plan when it was announced because I didn't think it possible that anyone could take it seriously. I was wrong. Though the Pence amnesty plan hasn't been widely covered, it has received support, or at a least respectful hearing, from insiders who will affect the final outcome of any bill. It's no surprise, for instance, that amnesty supporters like Dick Armey, John Fund, and Michael Barone have had nice things to say about it (not to mention several newspaper editorial pages), but even supporters of Enforcement First, like Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner and Newt Gingrich, have been more receptive of the plan than a close reading of it would warrant. It's also ironic that Pence's speech was delivered at the Heritage Foundation, given that his plan appears to violate Heritage's "permanent principles" on immigration; it will be interesting to see what Heritage has to say about the plan.

In the end, the Pence Amnesty wouldn't go down with the public any better than the string of other amnesty plans that have been proposed over the past couple of years. As Peggy Noonan wrote last week about the public's suspicions regarding immigration plans: "they think - they assume, at this point, reflexively - that slithery, slippery professional politicians are using and inventing complications to obfuscate and confuse. ... Americans don't trust "comprehensive plans," because they don't trust the comprehensive planners."

There's only one way Congress and the president can earn back the public's trust on immigration: Enforce the law - comprehensively, confidently, unapologetically. Then, after several years have passed and enforcement mechanisms are in place and working, and the illegal population has shrunk through attrition, Washington will have proven that, this time, it's not lying about immigration.

Until then, no deal.

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