The current impasse in immigration reform can be directly tied to the refusal of "comprehensive" immigration legislation advocates to learn from past efforts like IRCA in 1986. The major lesson of that legislation was that the fact of legalization coupled with the promise of enforcement is a recipe for failure. The estimated 11.7 million illegal migrants now living and working in the United States are that failure's highly visible and divisive metric.
The United States has now been put through more than two decades of avoidable social, cultural and political strife because of that mistake. It would be disheartening and politically negligent to repeat that same mistake, this time with eyes wide open.
The immigration bill that passed the Senate last spring reprised the same formula that had already been discredited by past experience: Give the illegal migrant population "provisional" legal status, and then begin to increase border security. Those potential increases in border security in the Senate bill proved, on second look, more symbolic and illusionary than real.
They were symbolic because adding technology and "boots on the ground" were only one part of what is needed to make certain that the same mistakes are not made again. They were illusionary because the metrics that were supposed to assess progress, like a committee that included border state officials, were in themselves inadequate and led only to further study and "plans."
"Provisional" legalization as written into the Senate bill, was in fact, legalization in the most direct way. Recipients would immediately be allowed to live and work in the United States, with almost no likelihood that after having struggled so long to reach a "deal," any future Congress would rescind their status.
You can't get any less provisional than that.
Still, the outline of a common ground solution is fairly evident; legalization for some groups of illegal migrants in some form coupled with real enforcement procedures being put into place before legalization is a granted.
The objections to this kind of agreement come from both liberals and conservatives, each with their own concerns.
Liberals have insisted that any agreement cast the widest possible inclusive net for those who might benefit from legalization, that any legalization agreement must include a path to citizenship, and that legal immigration levels be raised substantially to include tens of millions of new legal immigrants in the immediate future. They see these provisions helping to fix a "broken system." There are obviously also advantageous to the interests of groups and political parties they support, and from whom they will expect financial and political support in the future.
Conservatives are wary of the Senate bill for many legitimate reasons:
- They correctly see the bill as repeating the same mistake of trading immediate legalization for the promise of future enforcement that never materializes, as was the case with IRCA .
- They strongly disagree with the bill's many provisions that add tens of millions of new legal immigrants, not counting the 11.7 million illegal aliens eligible for legalization, in the coming years and foreseeable future.
- They object to the pathway to citizenship provisions, because they feel, correctly that it rewards breaking the law, with very little in the way of compensating penalties imposed as a balance.
- They object to what they see as an obvious and transparent attempt by Democratic Party partisans to add millions of new, appropriately grateful voters to their base.
- And finally, they object to the many dozens of special provisions inserted into the bill that have nothing to do with public interest reform and everything to do with rewarding the interests of those groups the committee members supported.
I characterize these concerns as legitimate because a number of them directly coincide with the views of ordinary Americans. Americans do want immigration laws enforced and do not support adding tens of millions of new legal immigrants in the foreseeable future beyond any of the 11.7 illegal migrants now here who might qualify for some form of legalization.
So, the so-called conservative positions are, in reality, mainstream positions.
And nothing underscores this point more than a new survey by the Pew Hispanic Center.