Why Congress Falters on Immigration

By Mark Krikorian on December 9, 2010

The New York Times, December 9, 2010

Progress on immigration policy is difficult because it's a bipartisan issue. It doesn't split neatly between right and left, between Republican and Democrat. On the side of amnesty, loose enforcement and higher immigration numbers are both organized labor and the Chamber of Commerce, both the liberal Center for American Progress and the libertarian Cato Institute, and both President Obama and former President Bush.

Those on the side of tight borders and against amnesty are likewise politically diverse (albeit much less powerful). They include environmentalists and assimilationists, social democrats and national security hawks.

This is a problem because in a democracy partisanship is essential to successful government. No fight is ever permanently won or lost, of course, but if the parties align on most issues -- taxes, abortion, health insurance, guns -- voters have a clearer choice, and elections can have a clarifying effect.

But an issue that cuts so thoroughly across ideological lines remains fuzzy, and voter choices don't send clear signals. President Bush was a Republican, and thus more likely to have received the votes of immigration hawks -- yet he was the most open-borders president in recent history. President Clinton, on the other hand, won the Latino vote in both of his elections, yet endorsed the Barbara Jordan Commission's recommendations to reduce future immigration by one-third.

Thus the vocal support for the Dream Act and other amnesty measures by a Democratic president and Democratic Congressional leadership is actually helpful in clarifying the politics of the issue. It unites most Republicans in opposition (even some who might otherwise be unreliable on immigration) and presents voters with a clearer choice for the future between Republican immigration hawks and Democratic immigration doves. There will continue to be exceptions, but they will remain anomalies, like pro-choice Republicans and pro-gun Democrats, able to hold their heterodox opinions so long as they keep quiet about them.

This doesn't mean that immigration hawks like me will always win (though the public's broad support for tighter immigration controls makes that likely). But it does mean that we'll be more likely to settle on an immigration policy and follow through on it.