An Autopsy of the Senate Immigration Bill, Pt. 1: What Went Wrong

By Stanley Renshon on February 18, 2014

The massive immigration bill passed by the Senate has now officially been given last rites by the actions of the House Republicans. Their list of principles specifically states that "we will not go to conference with the Senate's immigration bill" and there is every reason to believe that House Republicans are united on this, if not on the specifics of immigration reform.

It has been a roller coaster trip for immigration policy this year, and it is worth thinking about what went wrong with the process.

Any post-mortem must begin with the Senate and the dubious process by which their immigration bill was formulated and passed. The president, as was his style with the stimulus bill, health care legislation, and financial regulation, delegated the development of the bill to senior Democrats in the Senate. They in turn opted for the illusion of bipartisanship, while in reality stacking the deck.

The Gang of Eight contained equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, all of whom agreed on the major elements of the bill before they sat down together:

  • They agreed that there should be amnesty and eventual citizenship for the country's 11.8 million illegal aliens;
  • They agreed to do away with the immigration "backlog" by issuing millions of new immigration permits, without numerical limit, thus dramatically increasing the number of immigrants who would be granted entry into the country every year;
  • They agreed that there should be a very large guestworker program for business interests, and a very large increase in agricultural workers every year for farm interests; and
  • They agreed that large number of high-tech workers would be allowed in every year.

The big negotiations that were held behind closed doors were not about basic principles, but price.

All who were invited and allowed to work on that committee agreed beforehand to all these elements. Yes, it was a bipartisan group. But their bipartisanship was a veneer, camouflaging like-mindedness. The best that can be said of this group is that the Democrats, led by Sen. Schumer (D-N.Y.), had always been clear about their policy demands and the groups they thought their party would benefit from serving. Of the Republicans, the best that can charitably said is that they thought they were advancing the GOP's long-term interests.

The public's more general interest and its repeatedly expressed preferences for enforcing immigration laws, lowering immigration rates, and not adding millions of unskilled workers into an economy that was already suffering from unemployment, underemployment, and a basic restructuring because of globalization, trade, and other structural changes to the economy were simply ignored.

Worse, the bill attempted to finesse the most glaring lesson of the 1986 IRCA legalization by presenting itself as an immigration-enforcement first and then legalization bill, when in reality it was a legalization-immediately-enforcement-in-the-future bill. This basic misrepresentation was at the heart of the failed "comprehensive" immigration bills during the G.W. Bush presidency and advocates repeated that mistake again.

These are only the most glaring of the mistakes that the Gang of Eight made in putting together a massive, almost wholly unread, and certainly not well understood "comprehensive" immigration bill.

Documenting those errors is important; learning from them is crucial.

Next: An Autopsy of the Senate Immigration Bill, Pt. 2: What Can We Learn?